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NY Times Photo Ethics Policy Meets Edgar Martins

New York Times Magazine, July 5, 2009

New York Times Magazine, July 5, 2009

The latest advisory from the New York Times to freelance photographers should provide food for thought for all of us concerned about the  function of the photographic image as information and the credibility of the photographer as witness in the Photoshop age.

The reiteration of Times policy apparently came as a result of the hubbub over the disclosure of numerous digital alterations of the images in “Ruins of the Second Gilded Age,” a portfolio of architectural studies by UK photographer Edgar Martins published in the Times Magazine on July 5, with an accompanying slide show on NYTimes.com. (The slideshow has since been taken down.) You’ll find discussion of this at the Times‘s own photography blog, Lens. My own comments follow the Times memo. This July 8 article in the online edition of Photo District News includes several of the images and details the digital alterations.

From: NYT PACT/SYS/NYTIMES <NYT-PACT@nytimes.com>

Date: September 1, 2009 3:10:45 PM EDT

To: FREELANCEPHOTOGRAPHERS_1@nytimes.com

Subject: New York Times Photo Ethics Policy

TO: ALL FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHERS

This is a reminder of The Times’s policies on digital manipulation or other alteration of photos.

As you know, under the contract you signed for The Times, you warrant that any photo submitted for publication “will be original and unaltered (unless it is a photo illustration, pre-approved by your editor and fully disclosed in caption information materials).”

The Times takes this obligation very seriously; the integrity of photographs and other material we publish goes to the heart of our credibility as a news organization. The prohibition on unauthorized alteration of photos applies to all sections of the paper, the Magazine and the Web site.

This passage from the newsroom’s “Guidelines on Our Integrity” explains our rules in more detail:

Photography and Images. Images in our pages, in the paper or on the Web, that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions).

Adjustments of color or gray scale should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction, analogous to the “burning” and “dodging” that formerly took place in darkroom processing of images. Pictures of news situations must not be posed.

In some sections, and in magazines, where a photograph is used to serve the same purposes as a commissioned drawing or painting – as an illustration of an idea or situation or as a demonstration of how a device works, etc. – it must always be clearly labeled as a photo illustration. This does not apply to portraits or still-lifes (photos of food, shoes, etc.), but it does apply to other kinds of shots in which we have artificially arranged people or things, as well as to collages, montages, and photographs that have been digitally altered.

If you have any questions about what is permissible under the rules, please consult the assigning editor.

Sincerely,

William E. Schmidt

Deputy Managing Editor

The New York Times Newspaper

Division of The New York Times Company

This strikes me as clear, straightforward, and unequivocal. Overall, I might add, I think the periodicals sector of the publishing industry has done an admirable job of self-policing in regard to digital alteration of photographs. They’ve achieved this by engaging with the issues early on, articulating sensible “best practices” regulations, revising and updating those as the technologies become more sophisticated, insisting on “truth-in-packaging” labeling of images, and regularly disclosing, apologizing for, and punishing violations of policy.

Most of those breaches get traced to the excesses of photographers (as in the present case) and sometimes art directors, and usually prove themselves one-shot or occasional situations at a given periodical, not recurrent or systemic failures from within the editorial structures or deliberate and consistent deception by picture editors and publishers.

Looking at the images Edgar Martins submitted for publication, I find it surprising that no Times picture editor picked up on the fact that some of the images are obviously composed of two versions of the same exposure, with one side “flopped” to create a mirror effect. If readers could identify this and point it out quickly based on reproductions on paper and small jpegs online, how could the Times picture editors (with access to hi-res digital files of these composites) have missed it?

However, in their defense, Martins’s contract stipulated digitally unaltered images (beyond the minimal tweaking described in the above memo), and he repeatedly asserted to Times staffers — including the writer of the accompanying Times Magazine article, several editors, and the fact checker at the magazine — that his images conformed to those guidelines. Where I come from, we call that lying, when its source is a photographer commissioned to document the real estate bust.

Reading Martins’s own “annotations” of his now-controversial images, it seems clear that he felt free to exercise extreme license in montaging and altering his illustrations, rationalizing this activity with a logic and vocabulary far more commonplace in the discourse around creative photography than in that related to photojournalism and documentary work:

“My intention was to draw on references from Modernist art, thus also alluding to the wider concerns in my work, particularly with respect to the impact of Modernism on the environment.”

“My intention was to mirror the right-hand side of the room on the left-hand side, thus creating two opposing doorways. Joining the two sides also meant correcting the perspective.”

“[T]his image . . . explores an imaginary sense of ‘wholeness’ to the experience of a fragmentary reality.”

“I have always sought to explore multi-layered images. In my view, this is one of the ways in which photography can overcome the single frame’s limitations.”

““Where does one draw a line when seeking to represent but also shape reality? And how does the viewer relate to this?”

“It is not reality which I have sought to ‘manipulate,’ but its image.”

This reads like the kind of self-justifying babble now pandemic in the standard “artist’s statement” as taught in western art schools. (And yes, this form of textual creation is indeed taught to young artists; many art schools and art departments presently have courses in which students learn how to write their artists’ statements — including obligatory “theoretical” aspects thereof — in conformity to the standards of the academic artists on their faculties. Many schools nowadays won’t let students graduate without an acceptably “theorized” artist’s statement.)

Martins has compounded his disgrace by publishing, at his website, an essay in his own defense, “How can I see what I see, until I know what I know?” I consider it a classic of postmodernist bullshit, but — unlike Alan Sokal’s magisterial send-up of pomo jargon, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” — Martins clearly believes his own nonsense. Complete with the mandatory references and footnotes citing Nietszche, Bachelard, Lacan, Barthes, and Sontag, riddled with elementary errors of grammar, syntax, and spelling, it sums up his position neatly in these words:

“It is my view that there was a clear misunderstanding concerning the values and rights associated to the creative process which made a renown publication like The New York Times Magazine, commission a fine-artist, such as myself, to depict a very specific view of reality without taking all the necessary measures to ensure that I was aware of its journalistic parameters and limits. On the other hand I did not see these as a valid boundary. . . . Whilst I welcome some of the debate that is taking place, I did not envisage that it would be mostly centered on polarities such as ethical/unethical, right/wrong, real/unreal.”

The “clear misunderstanding” appears to me to have occurred entirely within this photographer’s mind. The assumption that the Times somehow failed to provide him with a tutorial more precise than its readily available policies is a blatant attempt on Martins’s part to avoid responsibility for his actions.

Either Martins is excruciatingly naïve and disingenuous (not to mention remarkably uninformed regarding guidelines for newspaper publication of photographic images nowadays), or he acted in extreme bad faith by submitting this work to the Times without including the above annotations or defining his posture in relation to direct photographic seeing — the enunciation of which, I suspect, would have lost him the assignment, and thus the handsome fee it brought him.

By any standard, these images constitute not photographs but photo-illustrations, and should never be presented in any context where they could get construed otherwise. The lesson to learn here isn’t that the public should distrust the news media in general, or photojournalists and their picture editors in particular, any more than they already do — and I do advocate a healthy level of skepticism in regard to the media as a given of informed citizenship. The lesson is that picture editors and publishers working in the territory of informationally oriented imagery (press photography, photojournalism, and documentary) should beware of any photographer whose academic certification comes from an art school, perhaps especially the Royal College of Art in London, where the Portuguese-born Martins got his MA in Photography and Fine Art. Such alumni are simply not to be trusted in the insufficiently “theorized” and simplistically “problematized” environment of newspapers and news magazines produced for the general public.

Can’t wait to see how the Royal College of Art responds to the professional behavior of its distinguished graduate. That would include people like Olivier Richon (head of the RCA Photo Department), Peter Kennard, and Susan Butler. Will they stand behind him or distance themselves from him? Will they embrace his contribution (imagistic and textual) to “the discourse around photography,” or refuse to accept any responsibility for the real-world consequences of their teachings in at least one instance?

We’ll see. This blog is of course open to their comments, and Martins’s — and yours, my readers, as always.

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10 comments to NY Times Photo Ethics Policy Meets Edgar Martins

  • Bruno Chalifour

    Hi Allan,
    As usual I could not agree more with you. I have also been appalled by the slow but real degradation of standards in a particular press (not the Times though and I do appreciate their reminder and as a result yours on editorial ethics), helped in this by the new digital tools.

    There is, however, one point, and a totally different topic, that you developed that makes me cringe:
    “This reads like the kind of self-justifying babble now pandemic in the standard “artist’s statement” as taught in western art schools. (And yes, this form of textual creation is indeed taught to young artists; many art schools and art departments presently have courses in which students learn how to write their artists’ statements — including obligatory “theoretical” aspects thereof — in conformity to the standards of the academic artists on their faculties. Many schools nowadays won’t let students graduate without an acceptably “theorized” artist’s statement.)”

    This seems to throw away the baby with the bathwater. It is also a very demagogic statement–it flatters those who did not go to art school or, whether they did or did not, cannot write a decent statement, as well as a lot of lazy people and lazy thinkers too that would use this statement of yours at face value to justify their laziness, frustration or, generally speaking, their lack of (good) ambition and high standards for themselves.

    Let me explain, it is true that a minimum conceptualization and verbalization of their creative processes is required from art students, especially at the MFA level. You would expect that from a system that makes the MFA a license to teach (then to verbalize). I do not think that evil is making people think about what they do, and try and train them to be able to explain it to themselves, and to a potential audience–in other words communicate. Writing a statement is not the key of creation but the vast majority of the good artists I know are also thinkers, they go deeper and tap into the psyche of our cultures and societies because they also think and and organize their thoughts.

    The issues that you are raising are in fact different from what you wrote in what sounds like a too familiar rant: 1-I would look at the way people who teach such things are recruited (critical thinkers [CTs] are not always what institutions or their recruiting staff, what I usually call “les assis” (in homage to Rimbaud’s poem), favor the most as CTs challenge them and may make them feel uncomfortable), and what the inferred expectations are. Again it is not a rule but it is widespread. 2-There is no training as such in pedagogy so a lot of the people who teach, including a the MFA level, do what they can and what they think they have been recruited for. 3-Critical thinkers are also held in (negative) awe by some students themselves who assess them at the end of each term/semester and give fodder for conservatism. After all in this system, students are customers and one has to attract them and keep them “happy”. One consequence being the institution is not going to fail them for an empty and crappy statement with their thesis… because as you do, so they also expect it to be crappy anyway! ;o) 4-Art babble should be sanctioned for what it is. It is often the result of bad teaching or no teaching (at least no learning), or too lax a system in granting its recognition.

    Now our best critics (a group I would definitely count you in) and artists master and use this vocabulary, concepts and way of articulating, expressing and communicating thoughts for our delight and intelligence. What has to be denounced is imposture. In the process one should not throw “posture” away lest one should shoot him/herself in the foot. This results in a lame artist or critic! ;o)

    All the best,
    Bruno

    • A. D. Coleman

      Actually, I haven’t “mastered” the fashionable vocabulary of postmodernist discourse, and make virtually no use of it in my work. I’ve familiarized myself with it, and the theories behind it. But I can’t say that it has contributed at all to my “delight.”

      Statistically, five years after getting their degrees 95 percent of this country’s MFA recipients will have left the field to earn their livings in other ways than teaching or making art. For the most part, they will not have been encouraged and guided into conceptualizing and articulating their own ideas. They will (in your word) have been “trained” to conform their thinking to a set of reference points that are all the rage in academic-art circles. They will have been told that they and their teachers are “doing theory” when in fact what they’ve mostly spent their on was “doing hypothesis” and, not infrequently, “doing dogma.” They will not know the difference between hypothesis, theory, and dogma. Most of them will prove incapable of independent, original thought — though their art/photo schools surely don’t deserve all the blame for that.

      I don’t intend to flatter people who choose not to go to art/photo school but make art anyway. By the same token, I don’t think anyone deserves praise or attention simply because he or she did go to art/photo school. I’ve taught in and lectured at art/photo schools (and at art/photo departments in colleges and universities and polytechnic institutes) for four decades now. I don’t see much difference between art/photo students, anthropology students, and business-administration students, save that nobody flunks out of art/photo school and MBAs have a much higher rate of employment after graduation.

      I’ve known photographers who speak and write wonderfully, even brilliantly, about their own work — Mark Klett, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, and Ken Schles, to name three. (Artists as well, of course.) I’ve also known many, including more than a few who taught, who were either not particularly adept at discussing their own work or, for various reasons, chose not to. Some prefer the work to speak for them, and — if the work is indeed eloquent — I find that perfectly acceptable. It’s a pleasure to find a photographer capable of eloquent speech and nuanced prose, but I’ll settle for straightforward and functional. I’ll even deal with the leaden and pedestrian.

      Because I’ve written publicly since 1968, I’m on everyone’s mailing list. I receive a daily flood of gallery and museum and publisher press releases, artist’s statements, and other texts about art. Much of it is hype, of course, but if it conveys the necessary data and information at least it’s proved useful on that level. The sadistically tortured locutions of pomo prose, like Martins’s lame rationale for cheating the Times, are painful to read and deliberately obscurantist. And no one writes that way naturally. As Malvina Reynolds sang, in a very different context, “you’ve got to be carefully taught.”

  • Richard Gordon

    Allan,
    Excellent article (as were the Polaroid saga). Leaving the lame, self-serving,
    unethical jargon of Mr. Martins stand, there are now profound issues of historical camera representation which are — or seem to be — changing how the culture sees photographs. A slew of newish point-and-shoots and iPhone-type apps slim faces, etc. When today’s ten-year-olds become the adult audience, what will this mean, even if reputable news organizations retain standards for news and documentary as opposed to photo-illustrations? I think WT Mitchell is mostly right: photography has been swept away by a tsunami of digital everything.

  • John Patrick Naughton

    Another juicy topic — one that has, in my eyes, appeared too little to late as “The cat is out of the bag, and smiling.”

    As one who has signed a NYT contract and loves morals, I am older — you might even call me middle-aged. That said, the technology out there is used by a different generation, and cameras are now redesigned every 14 months, I don’t think it could be fair to ask a photo editor or an art director to know or understand the software which is in these new cameras.

    Allow me to digress a little. Photography, like its sister painting, has always altered the truth. Truth became a reflection of the artist and his or her tools on how they viewed an event or a portrait. Editors and writers do the same; there are as many guilty editors as photographers.

    In July of 2006, as I was about to board the Staten Island Ferry, I thought to buy a newspaper. I bought The New York Times. Wow, what an image. It stopped me. It was not of a scantly clad sex icon, nor of a plate of pasta. It was a dark image, disturbing in both its color and content. The photograph was taken by Adnan Hajj; the image looked like a dark Forth of July — bright sensuous colors, light flickering, smoke plumes in the air. It was a image of Lebanon.

    I grew up watching those images of Vietnam; they have an effect on you and the outcome or support of a conflict. As the weeks passed, it came to light that Adnan Hajj’s image of Lebanon had help from Photoshop. He wasn’t the first; remember the image of O.J. or the posed photos of Keating. We have entered the digital age not knowing what it is, not knowing that in the right hands it’s limitless.

    On the very latest cameras from Canon or Nikon, you have ISO ranges that go from 200 to 6400; that was not possible with film. There are also “white balance” settings that can change the nature of an image before it is taken; at the same time you can change its “color balance” before the image is taken. By doing so, none of this will be detected by anyone who does not have the original file. The new, added twist to these new cameras is that they produce HD video; the quality is very good.

    So, how to police this new generation? You can’t — just find someone who’s honest.

    • A. D. Coleman

      Remember the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, who walked through the streets of Athens carrying a lantern in daylight, searching for an honest man? I envision a bunch of picture editors with flashlights wandering the photo district during their lunch hour . . .

      You’re right in saying that no picture editor or art director can keep up with the rapidly evolving capacities of image technology, With that said, whatever Photo District News and its staff and readers did to uncover Martins’s unscrupulous alterations could have (and should have) been done by people at the Times. Perhaps they need to add one staffer charged with examining image files to ensure authenticity before going to press.

      As I said, I think the publishing end of the industry self-polices admirably in this regard. I also think that the traditional educational environments for press photographers and photojournalists — schools of journalism (including photojournalism), know as “j-school” for short — deal responsibly with this by teaching the ethics of this profession, which includes examination of the crises generated by ethically challenged figures such as Jayson Blair and Adnan Hajj. I have no doubt that, this very semester, they’ll start using Edgar Martins as another example of what not to do.

      Morally corrupt individuals will still come out of such milieus, of course, but those contexts don’t actively generate them. The educational system for creative photography in which Martins learned his craft and absorbed his warped understandings of his professional accountability vs. his poetic license clearly predisposed him toward cheating on his assignment, lying to his clients about it when caught, and then rationalizing his deception with references to Lacan’s “mirror theory” and other presumed academic validation for his action. (The silence from his former faculty at the Royal College of Art in London remains deafening.)

      There’s no distinction made between right and wrong in most of the creative-photography programs with which I’m familiar. What they teach, instead, is the Andy Warhol Rule: “Art is anything you can get away with.” (By which standard, I should add, Edgar Martins’s work is definitely and authoritatively not art.) Hence my cautionary advice to publishers, picture editors, and art directors: If the resumé shows an art-school background instead of a photojournalism degree, triple-check those digital files.

  • John Patrick Naughton

    “… If the resumé shows an art-school background instead of a photojournalism degree, triple-check those digital files …”

    Now Allan, you bring up many good and valid points; the last one, however, I don’t agree with. As someone who majored in fine arts, served apprenticeships to painters at the age of ten and thirteen, I can honestly say that many of my friends are artists and I have learned more from painters than my fellow photographers, mainly passion.

    Honesty is not a course you take in the academic world, it’s what you choose early in life that defines the character and nature of your work.

    • A. D. Coleman

      Honesty may not be “a course you take in the academic world,” but ethics is. You study it theoretically in the philosophy department. You study its real-world applications in a number of disciplines, such as law, medicine, social work, psychology, and even archaeology. You also study it in journalism departments, and in photojournalism departments — not because those professions are inherently more (or less) honorable than others, or attract more (or fewer) honest people, but because the legal and medical and psychology and social work and archaeology professions (and also the journalism profession, which includes photojournalism) all have formal codes of ethics that professionals need to internalize and abide by.

      There’s a Center for Journalism Ethics at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison. There are textbooks and conferences and widespread discussion of the ethics of journalism, including photojournalism, and there are standards set and regularly reviewed and reconsidered by both the law and the profession itself, to which all practitioners are expected to adhere.

      I’ve taught in photo programs in art schools and art/photo departments for four decades. I’ve never seen a faculty member in any of those contexts present his students with the code of ethics of any newspaper or magazine or professional organization of print journalists or photojournalists as the basis for discussion of the ethics of doing documentary, photojournalism, or press photography. Indeed, outside of my own classes I’ve rarely heard any discussion of ethics in photography, whether it be ethical behavior toward the subjects of your images or ethical treatment of your gallery representatives or picture agents. Instead, they teach the Warhol Rule: “Art is anything you can get away with.” And they provide students with a lengthy menu of rationales for doing whatever they feel like doing.

      Which explains the prolonged silence from Edgar Martins’s faculty at the Royal College of Art. And the equally deafening silence from the publisher of his monograph, Aperture, most likely embarrassed by their claim that his images involve no digital manipulation (which I suspect close examination would reveal as false advertising). And the silence from the fine-art photo community generally. So yes, I reiterate that based on what I know about the teaching of professional ethics in fine-art photo programs, and this shining example of the consequences, were I a picture editor I’d double-check any submissions by any photographer with a fine-art degree from now on.

  • philip greenberg

    can a person be that dumb

    if an editor /policeman/your mom / says you cannot alter your photographs
    then im guessin you shouldnt alter your photographs …

    when the police ask “did you stab your wife” i guess Martins reply would be “can you define stab” …

    I am guessing the new decisive moment is now in post production.

  • Photographs should remain truthful in spirit, manipulated only through quality enhancements such as burning, dodging, contrast control, color balancing, spotting and cropping.

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