Unlike most niches of photography, photojournalism has staked a claim on veracity and ethics. Recent and past scandals make for lascivious headlines and imply an industry without a conscience, but most photojournalists still consider ethics with a high level of gravitas.
Various photojournalistic outlets have issued codes of ethics that generally fall into two categories: 1) image acquisition, and 2) post-processing.
In the process of taking an image, most code of ethics echo the NPPA:
(1) Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
(2) Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities…
(5) While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
Insofar as post-processing is concerned, organizations have had difficulty moving away from darkroom analogies. But World Press Photo has taken a stab at defining the unacceptable (e.g. removal or addition of items into the scene) and acceptable forms of manipulation:
(i) Changes in color may not result in significant changes in hue, to such an extent that the processed colors diverge from the original colors.
(ii) Changes in density, contrast, color and/or saturation levels that alter content by obscuring or eliminating backgrounds, and/or objects or people in the background of the picture, are not permitted.
Most news organizations prohibit image composites – including everything from panoramic images to HDR. But once again, the rate of technological progress has exceeded the rate of discussion on the topic. For example:
- Smartphones have become a normal part of a photojournalists’ arsenal. Many phones have HDR-like capabilities turned on by default because dynamic range of a phone lags behind their full-frame counterparts.
- New generation devices (e.g. Light L16, iPhone 7/8/X, Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G5) composite data from multiple sensors to form a final image.
- Noise reduction algorithms often take advantage of multiple frames taken before and after the “actual” image without the user’s knowledge.
- Computational techniques like sharpening and blur reduction can interpolate pixels into the scene that weren’t strictly recorded by the sensor.
- Plenoptic photography (aka light field) allows for refocusing after image acquisition.
Computational photography challenges our traditional conception of photography as a single exposure of light intensity captured by a photosensitive medium. As a thought experiment, consider a digital camera sensor where each pixel is capable of a different exposure, such that you’d never over or underexpose parts of the image. Is this single exposure “HDR” unethical?
Ethics in photojournalism have been driven, in part, by comparing the image to what the eye can see. But sensors can already see in the dark – perceiving color where it doesn’t exist. VR & 360 already allows us to see simultaneously in all directions in a way the eye cannot. And artificial intelligence combined with new mathematical algorithms is going to bring Blade Runner-style zoom/enhance capabilities. Imagine this technology applied to “Tank Man.” Then imagine the algorithm and training data getting it wrong.
Technology will always outpace philosophical and ethical concerns about its impact. Thus we shouldn’t rely on an occasional, reactionary approach to dealing with it. Ethics ought to be regularly discussed at conferences with photographers confronting both hypothetical and real-life scenarios so that they can begin to understand the breadth of the issue.
Computational photography has already quietly impacted photography for the masses. Its effects will only become more obvious over time. Recently, a well-known photographer told me that his daughter had set up a YouTube channel to sell “slime.” When he asked her why she didn’t create an Instagram account instead, she replied, “No one believes photographs!” It is naive to think that simply addressing the ethics of photography will solve the disbelief of a generation, but if photojournalists aspire to “accuracy and fairness” as one trade association officer told me, then the time to address ethics and technological challenges shouldn’t be left to the future. The time is now.
Photo by Allen Murabayashi