The Thin Line Between Reality and a Lie

Since its inception, photography has been used to inform, spark debate, and conjure emotions. Single photographs have been used as catalysts for change in foreign policy and in some cases, war. If no photos of the destruction on September 11th, 2001 were published, would we currently be fighting the war in Iraq? If a photo is worth a thousand words, how many words is it worth if the photo has been retouched? Today, more than ever, this needs to be kept in mind as the ease of digital photo manipulation has become all too tempting. Only a few quick adjustments can make a spectacular photograph out of an ordinary image.

The 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict was a controversial event. More controversial however, was the photographs published of the conflict. Plumes of smoke rising from the aftermath of an IDF attack on Beirut, a Lebanese woman standing outside her home destroyed by an Israel bomb on July 22, an Israel Armed Forces fighter jet deploying several missiles over Southern Lebanon – all depicted in photographs that would soon change the policies of news agencies worldwide. The plumes of smoke had been cloned to appear larger, the Lebanese woman whose house was destroyed appeared in an earlier photograph standing in front of another building claiming it to be her destroyed home, and as it turns out, the IAF fighter jet only deployed a single flare. These photos had been altered not only in appearance but also in meaning. The photographs came from Reuters, one of the most reputable media agencies around. When an agency such as Reuters is publishing manipulated photos, how can we even begin to trust photos from a less reputable source?

Measures have been taken to limit the amount of “spin” incorporated into written media. These same measures must be taken to prevent its equivalent in photojournalism. Photographs can and have been manipulated to inflict negative effects on their subjects – often political candidates and celebrities. “Altered shots on magazine covers of former Virginia Governor Mark Warner and conservative pundit Ann Coulter led to accusations of bias (in both cases, critics alleged the alterations made the subjects considerably less attractive. Warner’s classic gray suit and blue shirt were transformed into an odd brown and lavender, while Coulter’s already thin figure was elongated to frightening proportions).”3 Although this example, while political, only serves as an assault on a particular person, other instances have greater stakes. “When altered photographs are coming from a war zone, the sensitivities – and stakes – are even higher.”3 The Reuters photos vilified Israel as using excessive force by multiplying both the weapons used and the destruction they caused.

Posed or even staged photographs pose a risk to the integrity of our news agencies. The same photographer responsible for the Reuters photos of the Israel-Lebanon Conflict, Adnan Hajj, also had photos published of the aftermath of an Israeli bombing on a house in Qana. The bombing had resulted in the deaths of twenty-eight civilians. Many observers have pointed out that Hajj’s photos appear to have been staged to evoke stronger emotions from viewers. In his photos a Lebanese aid worker appears numerous times holding the seared corpses of dead babies. It appears as if Hajj and the aid worker toured the site, stopping to pick up the lifeless bodies for photo-ops. Charles Johnson, webmaster for the website, questioning the integrity of the photos, said, “None of the points I was making were intended to minimize the deaths in Qana, which did happen, but because images like that have such a powerful hold over human nature – they invoke the strongest emotions we have, to see children dead – if someone is manipulating those effects for propaganda purposes, it’s vital they be exposed, because it’s loathsome. But yes, no one wants the children to be dead, and I don’t minimize that at all. But to dance on their corpses in this ghoulish propaganda display is almost worse.”1

With the increased presence of cameras in today’s society – from those embedded in cellular phones, to point-and-shoot digitals, and near-professional digital SLRs – photographers are finding it hard to compete with members of the public who “just happened to be there” and are more than willing to give away their photos for free. It has become increasingly important to capture an image that rises above the rest and stands out from the others. “They’re captivated by the prize. You get your one flag raising at Iwo Jima, and you’re famous for 50 years,” says David Perlmutter of the University of Kansas.3 Photoshop and similar programs allow photographers to manipulate photos to tell the story better and enhance the photo’s meaning. In a photograph of Kent State and Toledo women’s basketball players jumping for the ball, photographer Allen Detrich found that an otherwise captivating photo had been ruined by the basketball traveling outside the frame. He solved this by cloning an image of the ball from a separate photo into the frame. Considering the basketball players were reaching for the ball, is it wrong to have placed the ball in the image? This image does not portray an event that did not happen and without manipulation of the photograph there would have been no record of it.

The photographer previously mentioned, Allen Detrich, crossed the border of what is right and wrong in photojournalism. While editing a basketball into an image may sound like a minor offense, it sets a precedent for photographers following in his footsteps. If adding a basketball to a photo is considered acceptable, what is there to prevent the next photographer from adding or changing the position of a team’s player? “Journalism, whether by using words or pictures, must be an accurate representation of the truth,” says Ron Royhab, vice president and executive editor for Toledo’s “The Blade”.4
When a photographer manipulates a photo beyond color adjustments and enhancing the sharpness and clarity of the image, they are not only cheating the public, they are cheating themselves. In response to the controversy regarding Hajj’s photos, Reuters News Pictures Editor for North America, Gary Hershorn stated:

“The most controversial tool in Photoshop that we use is the cloning tool. The only accepted use of this tool is to clear dust from the image. We have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to using the cloning tool to change content, and by that we mean removing something that exists in a photo, moving or replicating it or adding to a photo…

…The rules are – no additions or deletions, no misleading the viewer by manipulation of the tonal and colour balance to disguise elements of an image or to change the context.” 2

Clearly, Hajj broke the rules governing his work for Reuters – quite blatantly at that. As soon as what Hajj had done was verified, Reuters cut off all contact with the photographer. One can only assume finding work as a photographer will be a difficult task for Hajj in the future. Royhab, the photographer responsible for the basketball photo, has been fired from his position at The Blade. The Associated Press has removed fifty photos of his from its archives. It is clear there are career-altering consequences for photographers who break the “rules of engagement” and hopefully these cases will serve as a deterrent for others.

While some may argue that the excessive use of photo manipulation tools in photojournalism is just a result of competition and the evolution of digital photography, the public and in many cases, the media, has made its stance on the issue loud and clear. In order to maintain the integrity and level of trust we place in the hands of the media to inform us of events taking place, the governing bodies of photojournalism need to uphold strict guidelines on what is and is not acceptable. Lying through the use of a photograph is just as harmful as lying through words.

– Brad Gillette


  1. Bernhard, Brendan “Reuters’ Image Problem.” LA Weekly.
  2. Hershorn, Gary “News Photography and Photoshop” Reuters
  3. Marlantes, Liz “Doctored War Photos Ignite Controversy.” ABC News
  4. Seewer, John “Keep your eye on the ball – or not.” The Grand Rapids Press

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