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Of Pelosi and Photoshop: Does Context Matter?

This past Friday, a controversy erupted over a photo distributed by the office of Nancy Pelosi depicting the 62 democratic congresswomen of the 113th U.S. Congress standing on the steps of the Capitol building. The photo was sent to the press as well as posted to Pelosi’s photo stream on Flickr. The controversy erupted because it soon came to light that four of the congresswomen pictured were actually added to the group photo in post-production using Photoshop. Some members of the public were deeply offended that the picture had been modified, and some members of the press went so far as to label the photo government “propaganda.” Personally, though, I have to admit that I was surprised by the controversy. In my opinion, this photo was clearly a staged arrangement of people rather than a spontaneous historical event. Should it matter how much of that staging happened in person versus in the computer?

In evaluating the appropriateness of any image editing, I tend to ask myself what the function of the photo is, what that photo is communicating, and whether the editing alters that communication in any way. I can’t help but see this photo—altered or not—as serving primarily a marketing or promotional function. These women were assembled together to promote the fact that the Democratic party has brought a record number of women to congress this year. These women didn’t just happen to be on the steps of the Capital at the same time (even excepting the four added later), and they weren’t performing any group activity other than posing for a picture. To me, all that this photo communicates is that “here are the female Democratic members of congress.” That’s a truthful communication, regardless of whether the women were added in post-production. In fact, if all of the women were simply superimposed in Photoshop as floating heads above a background photo of the Capitol, nobody would have complained.

Of course, the reason nobody would have complained is that such a collage would have had no pretense of being an actual representation of the scene that could have been witnessed live. Clearly, what offended in this photo was the fact that it appeared that it might have been real, but wasn’t.

Not unreasonably, an article on Poynter.org drew comparisons between this latest controversy and a controversy in 2011 that led the White House to cease a long-standing practice of presenting staged photo opportunities that were recreations of historical events. I see these two situations as being quite different. In the 2011 controversy, the concern was that a staged photo could be seen as an actual historical record of what happened. In the Pelosi photo, however, there is no chance for such a misunderstanding. Edited or not, the photo is clearly staged.

Still, I can understand the negative reaction of many photojournalists to the Pelosi photo. Photojournalists must constantly maintain a reputation of being truthful and unbiased, and so they are held to very strict limits on photo editing. Their rules keep them far away from any potential ethical gray areas, so that even some edits that wouldn’t really alter the truthfulness of a photo are still off-limits. But what we expect from a photojournalist is not what we expect from a politician. For a photojournlist, even asking the congresswomen to stand on the steps would generally be considered inappropriate. A photojournalist should avoid being seen as influencing or creating a photographic event, but it was perfectly acceptable for an Associated Press photographer to captured the moment that was being created by someone else. 

In other words, I would say that the source of the photo creates one part of its context. There are certain assumptions we make about a photo from the Associated Press that will be different than the assumptions we make about a photo—or a statement—sent out from a politician. In the end, though, politicians must serve the public. Though the message communicated by the edited photo in this case may not be untruthful, it’s clear that the amount of editing still makes many people uneasy. Politicians would be wise to take this as a lesson, and be much more conservative in their approach to Photoshop in the future. 

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Reader Comments (3)

I'm seeing the same sort of thing. There are many reasons to be up in arms about the use (abuse) of modified images. (Olay/Twiggy always comes to my mind. If you're selling makeup to make people look good, then don't use photoshop to make the makeup look good.) I am thrilled and excited by the number of people who are pointing out fakes in photos. Whether it is altering a crowd to make them appear larger (or smaller), or releasing old photos as if they were taken recently, people have begun to take notice.

However, this heightened sensitivity is a two-edged sword. Modifications and staged photos that should be considered reasonable are now being labeled as 'misleading'. I wonder how soon before red-eye reduction and slight contrast enhancements in family photos are deemed unreasonable...

January 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Neal Krawetz

I'm not deeply offended by the post-production work but I am uneasy with it. I worry that in 50 years time this photo might turn up without much context, maybe just a very short title. And then someone will try and contextualise it, probably get it wrong and assume there is more to the photo than there was. It goes from a simple staged photo to the first photo of the 113th democratic congresswomen all together in person, a historical gathering. And then they would have a number that was incorrect, 4 too many.

Floating heads above the building would be better in this case.

[You raise a good point, and I'll admit I didn't really think of this from an historical perspective. Even so, I find it still doesn't bother me very much. All of these congresswomen were at the Capitol that day, and there isn't any historical significance to whether or not they were standing on the steps at the same time. Furthermore, I expect that anyone examining photos 100 years from now will be cognizant of the role digital imaging played in our visual history from this time. Still, I may well represent the minority opinion on this one. - Kevin]

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Watson

Any thoughts on how FourandSix could let users easily see how an image has been modified? It would be great if you could right click any image and run a report. It would also be good if EXIF could be improved to show a chain of command of file ownership and modification (kind of like Photoshop History palette, but that travels with the file). If folks got used to seeing Ultra4&6 images where they could flip thru the visual file history it would allow some cool deconstruction of images and give confidence to folks that what the see and what really happened are both transparent. All the best to you Kevin for a Happy 2013!

[Hi, Stephen! We're certainly working on ways of showing more specifically where images have been modified, though driving changes in industry-standard specifications like EXIF is probably a bit out of scope for us. A lot of your suggestions are great for people who might choose to store lots of editing history in their files. One challenge we're trying to tackle is figuring out as much as possible about images that don't include much metadata and other information. - Kevin]

January 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Inoue

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