Friday, December 14, 2007

The Changing Face of Photo Journalism

The Changing Face of Photo-Journalism

Twenty years ago, in 1987, if the New York Post photo desk needed a specific photograph, the first task would be to call down to the Photo librarian and ask her or him to go through the files and look for an appropriate transparency or an 8 x 10 black and white print. If no suitable images were available in-house, the photo desk would call local photo agencies asking them to check their files. If an agency such as Rex Features or London Features had the photo, they would rush a messenger over to 1211 Avenue of the Americas with the needed slide or print.

In 1997 when the New York Post needed a photograph, they would still call down to the photo librarian to check the files, the photo editors would look a bit at the skimpy databases on their Mac's and then they would send a fax to photo agencies throughout the country. If an agency had the photo, they would fire up the Nikon Cool Scan, scan a 1 – 4 megabyte image of the photo and then do modem to modem transfer of the image. The image transfer alone could take anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. And depending on line noise, the transmission of the photo could end up garbled and corrupted.

Today, when the New York Post needs a photo, the photo editors will do a quick search within their photo database - Merlin. Merlin receives thousands of photos a week, so it is very likely that the image needed will be there. If the photo editors want a photo from an event happening that moment, they will send a text message to their photographer who is currently at an event. The photographer, or perhaps a helper, will insert a memory stick into a lap top and either email the photo to the photo desk or send it via FTP using either a Wifi or cell phone connection. Some photographers will actually be tethered to a laptop so that the photos are immediately identified, captioned, keyworded and uploaded to their agency or publication. The entire process will take no longer than a few minutes.

Computers and graphics programs have enabled photographers and photo editors to achieve amazing results within a fraction of the time photography used to take. The advantages of such systems are many. We are able to more fully experience the horror of war or the pageantry of the Academy Awards, within minutes after such events. However, the same computers and graphics programs that can educate and entertain are also fully capable of lying to us. Computers, graphics programs and even telephones are also allowing the average Joe to get in on the act. Citizen photo-journalism is beginning to become accepted as legitimate news sources. With more and more advances in digital technology and imaging, the face of photojournalism changes daily.

When PhotoShopping Goes Wrong

A photo has never been a reliable story-teller. A camera captures a second in a life and that one shot might not tell the truth. Tampering with images has been around since Abraham Lincoln’s head was first added to John Calhoun’s body in 1860. However, it is an issue which has become more and more prominent in the past few years with the advances in Adobe Photoshop and other digital editing software. The celebrity magazine may scream “Brangelina to Split” and the headline might be based on a photo of Angelina Jolie casting a mean look at Brad Pitt. But how do we know that the sun is not in her eyes and she is squinting, or perhaps she has been hounded by the paparazzi all day and is exhausted or maybe she is just telling her beau a story and has her face scrunched up to make a point? The fact is, the photograph is not telling us the whole story, yet a story has been built around this image.

To make matters more complicated, Adobe PhotoShop or one of the other photo editing programs comes into the picture. A skilled photo editor can take individual shots of Violet Affleck, Shiloh Pitt and Suri Cruise and make it look like all three little children are happily playing together. It is only a celebrity magazine and perhaps the general public expects an element of make-believe or lies already. But what happens when the photographer is also a photo editor and he manages to manipulate a photo to tell an outright lie and then in turn sell it to his editor who puts it on the wire and millions of people see the image? This editor’s nightmare came true a year ago in August 2006 when Charles Johnson, a blogger thought that Adnan Hajj’s photo of a bombed Beirut looked a lot like bad cloning in Adobe Photoshop. Much to Reuter’s dismay, after examining that photo more closely as well as others taken by Hajj, it was obvious that the photo had been changed. Reuter’s quickly severed ties with Hajj and removed all of his photos from their database.1 Earlier, in March 2003, a Los Angeles Times photographer, Brian Walski, combined two photos from the same photo shoot in Iraq, trying to create a more compelling image. The image was indeed more compelling than either of the two images it combined, however, like Hajj’s photo, it was determined that the photo had been faked Interestingly enough, if the boots of the soldier in the photo had been examined, it would have been obvious there was something not quite right with the photo. 2

However, most photo editors go through hundreds if not thousands of photos every day. They do not have time to examine layers and levels to determine whether or not the image has been changed in a significant manner. And here is where the issue can get sticky. Dark rooms have traditionally been a place where photo correction happens. Skin tone becomes enhanced, red eye is removed, shadows lightened as well as other tricks of the trade to improve the image. All this and more can be done in Photoshop or with other photo editing software. Where is the line drawn?

The Charlotte Observer fired a photographer who changed the color of the sky. 3 A bit extreme, perhaps. But if an organization insists on no digitally altered photographs, the photographer should be well aware of the restrictions and consequences. Back in 2002, there was an unusual case of a man who was arrested for child pornography, but later acquitted as no one was able to determine whether the photos were photos of actual children or as alleged pornographer, Bryan Sparks insisted, clever digital forgeries. 4 With a little imagination, one could determine any number of ways that photos could be digitally altered and perhaps used with mal-intent. Fortunately for editors (and perhaps attorneys as well), as technology advances, software is being developed which can help spot the fakes. 5

Ten years ago, digital forensics expert, Hany Farid, recognized that equating digital images with 35mm film could lead to fraud and trouble. He began developing ways to detect forgeries and changes within photos. 6 If editors examine photos carefully, they may easily spot changes without having to resort to software. For instance, the Beirut bombing photo was spotted as a fake due to the poor cloning done- the smoke repeated itself. 7 Although I haven’t seen this described in any of my research, it seems like a record of changes could easily be kept in the EXIF information that is attached to every photo.

Citizen Journalism

The rise of blogs, camera phones and digital cameras is also changing the face of journalism and photo-journalism. Citizen journalism is not a new concept. 100 years ago, San Francisco suffered a devastating earthquake, six years after the development of the Brownie camera. The Brownie was the first affordable camera and people loved it. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was the first tragedy captured on film by ordinary people. In recent years we have had the horror of September 11, 2001, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse, Saddam Hussein’s execution, the UCLA university police tasering of a student, the London and Spanish rail bombings, Michael Richard’s racist tirade and many more events immortalized by average citizens.8 They were all aided by the development of camera and computer technology and it is very possible that some of these events would have slipped by us were it not for the proof offered up.

The citizen photo-journalism phenomenon is becoming such accepted practice that Reuters and the Associated Press now have departments devoted to the intake of such photos. Most, if not all these images will end up for editorial use only and end up languishing on a hard drive somewhere. However, at the same time, no one knows when or where the next story will break. Reporters and photographers are not able to be everywhere at once. This point was driven home by the Upstate New York foods of 2006. Otsego County effectively has one newspaper, the Daily Star, with two regular staff photographers. However, the Daily Star was able to provide much coverage of the floods thanks to all the photographs sent in by people affected by the water.

One of the biggest questions becomes how does this affect professional photographers? If everyone with a fancy digital camera now professes to be a photographer, does the value of a photograph decrease? The answer is absolutely. Getty Images has swallowed up the Media Vast empire which had incorporated such photo agencies as WireImage, Film Magic, Ron Galella, DMI Photo and more. This mega-agency now sells photos for as low as $10 per image. Although the market for digital photographs increases every day, it may become hard for a professional photographer relying on editorial sales to actually make a living.

Digital photography has had a short history. It has been almost forty years since the first digital image was captured and to paraphrase the old Virginia Slims ad, “We’ve come along way, baby.” The advances have been amazing and I am sure that year after year they will just become more and more impressive.









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