Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Patrick Schneider: Where is the line?

In an ideal world, knowing where to draw the line in terms of what is acceptable in photo manipulation would be as easy as saying don't do it, at all. However, in a world of digital photography where electronic image sensors actively attract dust and automatic white balances give faulty colors, post-processing is often a necessity. Those needs transform what would be a stark line into a fuzzy mess.

In 2003 the North Carolina Press Photographers Association rescinded three picture of the year awards it had given to Patrick Schneider of the Charlotte Observer. After concerns were raised by by other photographers, an examination had found that his contest shots had been altered significantly enough to change the content and scene of the photos. Those images are compared before and after manipulation by Poynter here.

The problem lies in deciding what types, and what amount of manipulation is ethically allowable. Schneider has made the argument that the techniques he used when editing his photos were processes, like dodging and burning, that had been used since the dawn of photography in the dark room, only transferred to the computer. On this point, he is correct. It should be made clear though, that there is a long history of image manipulation that occurred before the invention of digital processing. Just because something is possible in the dark room does not make it acceptable. Schneider's manipulations, in at least the image whose background was removed, took those simple techniques to an extreme that effectively changed the photo's content.

Just after he was stripped of his awards, Schneider appeared on NPR's All Things Considered talking about what he had done. It appears as though he was making no attempt to maliciously deceive his editors or the public. He was simply unable to resist the desire to manipulate his photos to give them more impact. He even acknowledged that his edits went over the line.

"I know that I probably went too far on some of my burns, and my paper has made our standards clear," said Schneider in interview with Poynter's Kennith Irby during NPPA's 14th annual Women in Photojournalism conference in 2003. "I will no longer tone my background down that far."

As a reaction the Observer, and papers across the country, tightened its photo ethics guidelines. The paper also gave Schneider a stern warning to not manipulate any more images, at all.

Three years later, in 2006, Schneider altered the colors in a photo of a firefighter silhouetted against the sun atop a ladder. When the change was discovered, he was fired from the paper. In reality, the manipulation in this image is not extreme or malicious, but Schneider's history made it the straw that broke the camel's back.

In the end, Schneider's case has come to serve as a warning to other photojournalists. Any manipulation, not just malicious, can get you in serious trouble and cost you your career. One must only use manipulation software for the simplest of edits. In general, if you are making an edit to actively give an image more impact stop take a step back. You are likely far closer to that fuzzy line than you should be.

No comments: