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.