A “New Code of Ethics”

November 7, 2009

“We found that the photographer Brian Walski has been dismissed from the LA Times for no valid reason. It seems that the newspaper does not fully understand that the CONTENT of the image he sent in, was not altered in it’s essence, even though he combined two consecutive images.” (Meyer, 2003)

 

What was the apparent message of the picture Walski sent in? The picture alone seemingly told us of a soldier giving an order or a warning to one individual or a group of civilians. Put into a specific context (in the newspaper with a title, a caption and a related article), we got a clearer idea of the fact that the British soldier was telling the Iraqi civilians to take cover as the site was under fire. Is that message any different from what the original photograph of the agitated soldier portrayed? The message appears to be untouched. The published picture only looks slightly more visually dramatic, or ‘better’ as Walski said it was intended to be.

 

St Petersburg Times photographer Chris Zuppa reveals the common use of photo editing  in photojournalism and mentions the use of photo illustrations: “Photojournalists use programs like Photoshop to tone a documentary photograph […], and we don’t digitally clone information like signs, poles and people from a photograph unless it’s a photo illustration, and they are labeled as such.” (Zuppa, 2009)

Photo illustrations may very well be (generally) labeled as such, but it is probably not fallacious to make the assumption that the majority of viewers/readers don’t pay much attention to the label used on a picture, if they even know what the term ‘photo illustration’ means.

 

Walski’s picture did not say ‘photo illustration’, nor on the other hand did it state that the picture was plainly a ‘photo’. No specification is given. Could this be used as a loophole in the vague Code of Ethics? Here are two close-ups of the bottom right hand side corner of the front page picture from the Hartford Courant (left) and the L.A. Times (right):

 

Photo labels

 

Why are some photographers ‘ethically’ permitted to enhance their pictures whilst others get dismissed and reprimanded for doing so even when the message stays intact? This happened for example to photographer Patrick Schneider in 2003 for slightly adjusting the colours of a photograph. (See highly recognised photographer Pedro Meyer’s article in defense of Schneider on his ZoneZero website. Meyer, october 2003.) Meyer makes a valid point in questioning the significance of the colours of a picture for a person who is colourblind. Many forms of editing thus don’t impair the message of a photo in any way, and should therefore not be so severly rebuked.

As Chip Simone puts it: “the “electrojournalists” of today, have a totally new set of opportunities and thus responsibilities” (Meyer, october 2003)

 

Photojournalists need to be truthful of course, but this applies to any form of journalism, just as much to writers as to photographers, as well as to the relation between the two.

Photographs in newspapers are generally linked to an article, or at least captioned, often by someone other than the photographer. This can very easily impair the integrity of the photographic message, either accidentally or intentionally. We therefore get information  (or disinformation) about the same event from two separate perspectives, with potentially two distinct intentions or agendas. A picture put in a different context (or outright taken out of context) is a completely different picture, presenting a different set of information, and is therefore no longer faithful to the original message.

 

We can argue that ultimately the only thing that matters is that the truthfulness of the event is rendered. The responsibility lies therefore not so much in the hands of the photographer, but in those of the picture editors, journalists, news editors and anyone else substantially involved in news organisations and media conglomerates.

 

The Code of Ethics, by using arguments that don’t always apply, seem to be telling photojournalists how a picture is supposed to be created, and thus by imposing these ‘guidelines’ they infringe on the photographer’s freedom of expression. Moreover, to quote Pedro Meyer’s critically sarcastic remark: “any photographer who needs to be explained what misleading information is or looks like, should not be given a camera in the first place.” (Meyer, october 2003)

 

News and media institutions seem to use this misguided code of ethics as a permission slip, as a justification, to manipulate information, events and the public opinion to their advantage and for the benefit of the powers that be.

How do these organisations operate? How accurate and objective are the ‘news’ we are supposedly truthfully reported?

 

 

 

Meyer, Pedro (2003). The LA Times fires a photographer. [online] ZoneZero. Available from: <http://zonezero.com/magazine/articles/altered/altered.html> [Accessed on 26 October 2009]

 

Meyer, Pedro (October 2003). In defense of photographer Patrick Schneider and the fictions of a “Code of Ethics”. [online] ZoneZero. Available from: <http://www.zonezero.com/editorial/octubre03/october.html> [Accessed on 26 October 2009]

 

Zuppa, Chris (2009). Looking at the truth of a photo, St. Petersburg Times, 11 October. [online] Available from: <http://www.tampabay.com/news/perspective/article1042642.ece> [Accessed on 31 October 2009]

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