Overediting in Photography

Discussing the precarious nature of editing a photo while maintaining its integrity brought to mind a scandal that took place within the Los Angeles Times a short time ago. On March 31, 2003 the Times published a front-page photograph that was shot (and altered) by Brian Walski. The edited picture depicted a British soldier instructing a group of Iraqi civilians to take cover from hostile fire in Basra, while a man holding a young child seemed to be pleading for his help. The photograph, steeped in pathos, resulted from Walski combining two separate shots that showcased entirely different tones.alteredwalski

In the first unaltered photo, the soldier is gesturing and the man is looking away. In the second, the man and the soldier are merely facing each other.

Through editing, Walski was able to manipulate the significance of the wartime scene, thereby injecting his own agenda in the photograph. It was not true to life, and thus unauthentic photojournalism. As soon as this was recognized, the LA Times dismissed Walski from its staff and published a retraction.

Though Walski claimed his editing improved the photograph, the blatant insertion of the gesturing soldier alongside the pleading man with his child was an utter fabrication. Perhaps in the art or fashion industries, this kind of editing would have been acceptable. But, while fashion and art are expected to be fantastical and unrealistic, photojournalism is expected to be honest and informative. I thus agree with Walski’s dismissal based on his editing.

So, where is the line? What elements of editing are fair play in photography? In my opinion, cropping, altering light or shadow, and brightening or darkening colors are all okay to do, even in photojournalism–as long as the essential depiction of the scene and its subjects remains unchanged. And, of course, in fashion and art, the photographer has an even greater creative license to edit however much he/she pleases.

What do you think?

What about you?

— Andrea Siso

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One Response to Overediting in Photography

  1. cummingd says:

    I find a good journalism-ethics rule-of-thumb is “Do not deceive.” That works in this case. Your distinction is also good — light and shadow can be “improved” but not substantive facts. What are substantive facts? Human action, certainly. But dogs and bugs too — and where the moon sits over the pyramids at a given moment. “Moment” may be the thing you don’t change in a photograph.
    From Annie Griffiths’ book we had in class, “Simply Beautiful,” that’s one chapter. Another is “Palette.” Maybe the ethical line is this: “Palette” can be edited, up to a point. But not “Moment.”

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