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
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.
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.