Photo controversy: manipulation and the search of truth

One of the essential roles of the photograph is to provide evidence. The visual impact of the image on the audience is based on a common belief that a picture can not lie. A camera is a piece of equipment that captures the moment as it is. People trust and believe that images portray reality and truth. However, the truth of the image lies in the photographer’s eye.

Navy binoculars

Binoculars, Photo credit, Hereticsnail, (Flickr).

There are different types of photo manipulation – some are acceptable and others not. Firstly, and most worryingly, technology can construct artificial reality through applications such as Adobe Photoshop. Equally, the photographer can manipulate scenes, realities and scenarios through set up, staging and such like. No matter which form of manipulation is utilised, image editing is used to create an illusion.

With the advent of computers and digital cameras, photo manipulation has become more common. Photo manipulation traces its roots to the 19th century; it is as old as photography itself. The first iconic case of an altered image was a portrait of Abraham Lincoln’s head on the body of a Southern slavery supporter.

However, subtle alterations to colour balance or contrast for enhancement or correction purposes can be justified. Improving exposure and adding sharpness are the adjustments most photos need before publication. Some image manipulation is necessary, for example, the slight adjustments do not distort and are only used to apply effects to construct reality.

Journalistic and documentary photographs are often taken under difficult circumstances, thus modifications are required to improve the quality of the image and adjust it to the newspaper or other publication’s specifications. Furthermore, the human eye is more advanced than the camera lens, thus modifications such as colour adjustments are necessary to provide an accurate reflection of reality.


Photographers, Photo credit, (Flickr).

From the 1990s, the transition from traditional to digital photography and sophisticated photo editing software has brought new challenges. Photo manipulation has become more common and hardly detectable to the untrained eye. The ease with which digital images can be changed has brought about new ethical issues in journalism, where the accuracy of images is vitally important.

The possibilities afforded by digital technologies make such manipulation easy to accomplish today with Adobe Photoshop. However, image manipulation was possible before the 90s, though it required a great effort either in the darkroom or on the editing floor with a pair of scissors.

Street photography

Photo manipulation techniques started as an effort to produce the perfect image. The core function of image editing has not changed throughout time but the ways in which we are able to alter images has advanced considerably. With the development of the digital era it has become increasingly more difficult to control the image manipulation. Journalism has been caught in the middle of this epic ethical struggle.

Image editing has always involved ethics. Today, with digital processing, there are endless possibilities for retouching and image manipulation. The question is, when does the pursuit of editing violate ethics? There is no simple black and white answer; what we consider acceptable today, may not be acceptable tomorrow as the rules we set are ever changing.


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