Is society numbing to photo manipulation?

Being that I know a lot of people still in or connected to the newspaper business, I’m still usually pretty in the loop when it comes to news of the media world, especially when it comes to newspapers in northern California.

So, the big story out of that neck of the woods was the sacking of long-time Sacramento Bee photographer Bryan Patrick for photo manipulation.

The full explanation from the Bee is here. But here’s the Reader’s Digest version:

First, a reader alerted the Bee that a photo Patrick took of egrets during a bird festival in Galt may have been manipulated because the same plants showed up the background. As it turned out, the reader was right: Patrick had combined two photos into one more interesting image. The Bee suspended Patrick and began doing reviews of his past work if he had done this in any other cases. When two more manipulated photos turned up in that review — removing his shadow from one and enlarging flames of a wildfire in another — that was essentially, three strikes, you’re out.

Inside the journalism word, the opinion is pretty much unanimous that Patrick committed serious ethical violations and deserved to be fired. (One comment I saw via Facebook was “If you want to create art, open an art gallery”) The Bee’s comment section? Not so much. The amount of people commenting that they didn’t think the manipulations were such a big deal is pretty substantial.

A sampling of such comments (spelling errors their own):

“This is rediculous. By your own description of the issues above, he did nothing more than edit his work for clarity, something you would require of a writer.”

“Since when does it impede honesty to remove a shadow from a photo????  The moment wasn’t rewritten and history wasn’t altered because a SHADOW was removed.  Welcome to the world of photoshop. The NFL had to get used to allowing officials the option to review calls via instant replay – and so, too, will the Bee have to find ways to accommodate the changing times and our new digital world.”

“Who cares if he manipulated a photo of a bird with frog, or enlarged flames of fire for a competition. Jesus there are REAL problems in this world and the major Sacto fishwrap is worried about this?!?”

As you can see, not all Photoshopping is totally blatant. (hat tip verydemotivational.com)

If you think about it, that’s kind of scary.

I believe this is partially due to Photoshop. The type of manipulations that Patrick performed, and more, are now possible by anybody willing to spend $200 on the popular visual editing program. Where as once upon a time these types of effects took eons of time and knowledge, now anybody can use a down weekend and learn all the egret manipulations your heart desires.

Heck, Photoshop has managed to make it into that rarest of positions that is reserved only for the software programs and websites that have truly embedded themselves into society and culture: Photoshop is both a noun AND a verb. It’s no longer “make a photo illustration.” Now you “Photoshop it.”

Maybe, on the surface, making flames bigger and changing the neck position of an egret doesn’t seem like something calamitous to do. But what is newspaper photography but trying to show an image of what’s going on? How are you doing that if you adding, taking away and changing what’s in the picture?

For example, I have an assignment coming up where I’m going to take photos of a basketball game at my college. The student government has made a big push for a “blackout” where everybody shows up wearing black. Let’s say the stands only wind-up half-full, but I go ahead and use my copy of Photoshop and duplicate a few extra cheering students in there. Or I combine two groups of close-up into one giant close-up?

I’m no longer giving you an accurate depiction of what happened at the game. I’m giving you a sorta-accurate depiction of the game. Yeah, those students were there. But they weren’t there in the way I’m making you think they were. Isn’t that lying?

In journalism, there is no sorta-accurate. There’s not supposed to be an gray area. It’s either accurate, or it’s not. And photography, unlike writing, has a very clear analysis of when something become accurate or inaccurate. Patrick’s photos went past that. So he had to go.

Just because the average Joe has the power to do something, doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone to do it. Unfortunately, now that the power to do powerful photo manipulations is in the hands of everybody, the right and wrong to people at large appears to have been muddied.

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