Vol 6|No 8|May|1997

This article was first published in the December 1995/January 1996 issue of Leading and Learning with Technology ©1996 all rights reserved.


A Question of Ethics

Bonnie Meltzer

As teachers we need to help our students be aware of the issues of imaging. Photo manipulation is not just about using the technology--it is about understanding our society.

While walking down a street in a big city, a newspaper cover caught my eye. From 100 feet away I said to myself, Somebody's been using Photoshop. The picture on the front page was of a noted personality all dressed up in the latest grunge-----not her usual style. What caught my eye was not the celebrity but the obvious use of photo manipulation. The hair was drawn on with bilious yellow and of a texture that was not real. As I got closer I could see that the artist who made the cover of this weekly paper wanted you to know that he had tampered with the original photo. It was very obvious.

I snatched up a copy of the paper to use at my next lecture on imaging. I now had a perfect visual example of badly executed, very clumsy photo manipulation. But why did I want such a bad photo? Because this cover, especially juxtaposed with a skillfully manipulated photo, raises two of the most important questions about photo manipulation. Why are photographs edited, anyway? Does it make a difference if you can tell that a photo has been edited?

The Importance of Reading Images

Computer-edited photographs are ubiquitous. Even if we weren't teachers we have to know the issues surrounding imaging. We live in an increasingly visual world. As individuals and as a culture, we need to know how to read and interpret visual images.

As teachers we need to help our students be aware of the uses and abuses of imaging. Photo manipulation is not just about using the technology --- is about understanding our society. We have to prepare our students as users of the technology because they will become adults who will be working in the newsrooms, laboratories, and graphic studios.

They are also going to be on the receiving end of all this manipulated visual information. We have to help them navigate through it all so they can become thinking adults. All this raises more questions. How do we tell what's real and What's not? How do we keep from believing everything that is printed? How do we keep from believing nothing?

Manipulating Photographs

I will probably raise more questions in this article than I will answer. I can, however, give you a good idea of why people edit photographs. All of you who read this publication already know that computers are wondrous machines. When it comes to photography it seems even more magical. I can redecorate my whole house, loose ten pounds or even ten years, and leap tall building at a single bound all while sitting at my Mac. As an artist I am entranced by the creative things I can do. I can make a visual landscape replete with icons and symbols. I can stretch reality to create new meaning by mixing images that don't normally appear together. I can make reality unreal and, conversely, make fantasy seem real.

Artists sometimes need to work with the mundane. We have to take the bad photographs that our clients give us and make them printable. I recently received a newsletter that had a picture of a group of board members on the front page. I don't think it was an editorial comment that the members of the board were gray and faceless. Whoever was responsible for putting the newsletter together didn't know that a photo can be made lighter and brighter, be given more contrast, and have the image sharped. With a computer and photo manipulation software, the contrast in the photo could have been adjusted turning this photo into a nice group portrait instead of a faceless blob.

Family pictures that are so faded that you are afraid that the image won't last until next year, much less the next generation, can also be made more visible with imaging. Even after all these years of working with enhancement software, I am amazed at how much can be made visible with the right techniques and, of course, software. Grandma's features reappear!

And speaking of family pictures, what about the one in which you look really cute but it appears that a parking meter is growing out of your head? Aunt Sally could never master the view finder! Again, photo imaging software comes to the rescue. Not only can you erase the parking meter but you can extend the rest of the background to fill in where the meter stood.

It used to be that you needed zillions of dollars worth of hardware and complicated software to accomplish these feats. Now, however, our fourth grade students can achieve these miracles with even LC's and low cost software like Color It!

The Ethics of Manipulation

Why do you think that Oprah Whinfrey's head on Ann Margaret's body appeared on the cover of August 26, 1989 issue of TV Guide? Try to imagine a final production meeting in which an editor might have tried to explain the decision to use that photo:

I need a picture of Oprah, a new one now that she is thin but we don't have one and we go to press too soon to get one. What shall we do? Let's see, we have an old picture of her. Let's but her head on a thin body. We can do that now, right? Who will know? We just have to match the direction of the head and the body. We don't even have to worry about color. We can match any skin tone. We need to do this now .

Is a deadline a good enough justification for this solution? Is laziness a good enough reason? Is cost a good enough reason?

The Oprah example may seem rather trivial---Unless, of course, the picture was of you. The intent may be different, but is there any difference in the editor's solution and painting a mustache and beard on a poster? Both are violations of the person pictured. Does it matter that in one instance the attempt was made to make the person look good while the other was made to discredit the person? Answering the questions begets more questions

The matter of intent must be discussed. In the Oprah example, we have surmised that "truth" may sometimes be distorted because of laziness. But there are other reasons images are manipulated. The two headed goats on the cover of the supermarket tabloids are made to deceive. Can a can of pop be removed electronically from a table without being deceptive? Should a person ever be added or subtracted from a photo? Again we must consider intent. Is the photo of people going to be used at a trial? Is it for a newsletter or class picture? Does it appear in a reliable newspaper as a news item? What makes the difference between a positive use of photo manipulation and an abuse of it?

Even positive intent can lead to distortion. A person editing photographs must always be aware of the way our soviet reads symbols. You have seen the June 27,1994 covers of Newsweek and Time with two different versions of the same mug shot of O. J. Simpson. The Time cover make Simpson's face darker, blurrier, and unshaven. Matt Mahurin, the illustrator at Time Magazine who manipulated the police photo of O. J., at his word, he said that he "wanted to make it more artful, more compelling." He forgot to ask the following questions:

  • Should a police photo be manipulated? A news photo be manipulated?
  • Are certain kinds of images symbols for complicated attitudes and issues.
  • Are certain symbols or images understood differently by different ethnic groups or segments of society.
  • Will my intent be misinterpreted? Will I be unsuccessful as a visual communicator?

We are left asking ourselves the question: Was Mr. Mahurin a racist, an unthinking person or a bad artist?

Newsweek published the same mug shot without altering it. It was the juxtaposition of both the Time and Newsweek covers that really points to the issues. No other example of photo manipulation gives us as much to talk about as these two covers. The issues are present with other examples from the media but they aren't as clearly defined.

Student Awareness

The question you are probably asking at this point is, What can I do? One way of helping students to understand the issues surrounding photo manipulation is to have them ask questions. Make them aware of all the issues involves when they create images for the school newspapers, art class, term papers and other school work. You can start with Where? When? Why? How? and What?

  • Where did I get this photo? Is it mine to use?
  • When can I use a copyrighted photo?
  • Why am I changing this photo?
  • How will the readers interpret this photo?
  • How would they have interpreted it without editing?
  • What is the context of the photo? Is this photo supposed to be truth (journalism) or fantasy (art)?

For those of you who don't teach imaging the same questions can be asked of newspaper and magazine photos, TV advertisements, and even mail. The idea is to enable your students to observe, analyze, evaluate, and yes, think critically about the tons of visual material that come their way.

The manipulation of photographs is not new. In 1903 Edward Steichen said . . .

In the very beginning, when the operator controls and regulates his time of exposure, when in the dark room the developer is mixed for detail, breath, flatness or contrast, faking has been resorted to. In fact every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible. When all is said, it still remains entirely a matter of degree and ability. Adobe Magazine 6(3), 104)

It is also true that photographers touch up photographs, but it was a long and arduous process. Digital editing is faster and easier. The tools are within economic reach for institutions and individuals. Thus more photographs can be and are manipulated.

My intent in writing this article is to make you aware of the issues--to get you to ask questions--to stimulate discussion and to encourage debate with your students and your peers. Some questions can't be answered easily. Others can't be answered at all. But to not ask the questions is to miss a great opportunity.

Reprinted with permission from Learning And Leading With Technology, vol. 23 no. 4, published by the International Society for Technology in Education and Bonnie Meltzer ©1996. All rights reserved.

Bonnie Meltzer is an artist and an educator. She uses a computer to design her work. Not only does she make digital collages but she uses recycled computer parts for jewelry and sculpture. As an educator she is available for computer workshops and lectures on digital photography and making visual arts on the computer. Her specialty is teaching artists and teachers.She has taught every age group and ability level from pre-school kids to 94 yer old senior citizens and from computer novice to computer wizzard.


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