An Essay in Photography Ethics

Photo Manipulation in the Digital World

Photographic and video images can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated. – National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics

Cases of photo manipulation – moral, political and ethical implications:

  1. Moral Ethics
  2. Mystification of Reality vs Aesthetic Interpretation
  3. Political Manipulation
  4. When the Reality is Perceived of Being Faked…

1. Moral Ethics

Kevin Carter, “Struggling Girl”, Sudan 1993

Photography ethics: Kevin Carter, "Struggling Girl"

Kevin Carter, “Struggling Girl”, Sudan

Photographer Kevin Carter made a trip to Sudan in 1993. He found a girl who was trying to reach the United Nations feeding center. Nearby was a vulture following the girl. To get the perfect photo, Kevin Carter waited 20 minutes for the vulture to get close to the girl. After he got the shot, instead of helping the little girl in her way to the feeding centre, he sat under a shade and smoked a cigarette…

The New York Times awarded Kevin Carter with the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography, despite the magazine’s readers concern for the fate of the girl and the moral issues raised by this photo.

It is a photo more important than a human being? Taking a prize based on human sufferance is not acceptable when you are able to help.

On the other hand, this photo and others taken by Kevin Carter have been used to raise awareness about the situation in Africa.

Kevin recognized his wrong doing. He committed suicide at the age of 33 – one year after the “Struggling Girl” photo has been taken.

He left this note:

“I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, of killer executioners”. – Kevin Carter

Source: Paula Gortazar Blog

2. Mystification of Reality vs Aesthetic Interpretation

Klavs Bo Christensen

Klavs Bo Christensen was disqualified in 2009 in the POY (Pictures of the Year) contest for an alleged abuse in color and tonal enhancement of the original RAW files of his pictures.

Klavs Bo Christensen original image

Klavs Bo Christensen original image

Klavs Bo Christensen altered image

Klavs Bo Christensen altered image

Source: NPPA

Narciso Contreras

The Associated Press news organization has cut ties with freelance photographer Narciso Contreras after he admitted to digitally altering a photo taken in Syria in 2013.

Contreras cloned out a video camera from the bottom left of the original photo, before sending back the manipulated photo to the AP editors.

Narciso Contreras original image

Narciso Contreras original image

Narciso Contreras manipulated image

Narciso Contreras manipulated image

Source: The Associated Press


In the case of Klavs Bo Christensen photo, nothing has been added nor deleted from the original image. The image is the photographer’s tonal and aesthetic interpretation of reality, not content manipulation. It doesn’t break the photojournalism code of ethics, but still, it is up to debate.

In the case of Narciso Contreras photo, the reality has been changed. Manipulation took place.

Talking of “manipulation” is correct only when actual pixels are “moved”, therefore when the minimum unit of a digital image is at least either replaced or cloned. – Claudio Palmisano, 10b Photography

AP’s guidelines say:

‘No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph. The faces or identities of individuals must not be obscured by Photoshop or any other editing tool. Only retouching or the use of the cloning tool to eliminate dust on camera sensors and scratches on scanned negatives or scanned prints are acceptable …

Minor adjustments in Photoshop are acceptable. These include cropping, dodging and burning, conversion into grayscale, and normal toning and color adjustments that should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction…’

3. Political Manipulation

“Timisoara Syndrome” or “Faking of the Dead” – December 1989, Romania

The manipulation of the context or the story of an image is often used for political gain or mass manipulation.

In December 1989, the so called “revolution” took place in Romania. It was the end of Ceausescu dictatorship and the end of the communism system. This was the first “revolution in direct” in the history. It was televised everywhere in the world.

The “revolution” started in Timisoara. Thousands of deaths have been reported by the international media. The reality: 100 people died in Timisoara. Photos and video footages of dead people in hospitals or mass graves (people who died from other causes, not related to the revolution) – have been used to manipulate the public opinion.

Targu Mures, Romania: Distortion of the Truth – March 20, 1990

On March 20, 1990, clashes between Hungarian ethnics and Romanians took place in the city of Targu Mures, Transylvania. Video footage of a “Hungarian ethnic in green jersey” being savagely beaten by Romanians is shown around the globe.

The reality is – the story was reversed. The “Hungarian ethnic in green jersey” actually was a Romanian farmer, named Mihăilă Cofar.  And the aggressors were Hungarian ethnics…

Targu Mures 1990, Mihaila Cofar

Targu Mures 1990, Mihaila Cofar incident (video)

Source: Ziaristi Online, YouTube

Faked news, once spread is difficult to counteract. Often the truth comes too late. The damage is already done.

Reluctant Rocket

Iran’s show of military might in 2008 was doctored to remove a launcher which failed to fire – and replaced with a fourth projectile.

Iran 2008 rocket launch

Iran 2008 rocket launch: manipulated image (l) and the original (r)

Source: BBC

North Korea: Kim Jong-Un’s Uncle Being Removed from Photo

Kim Jong-Un’s uncle Jang Song-Thaek has been removed not only physically from the North Korean government, but also digitally from the previous appearances with Kim.

Kim Jong-Un's uncle has been digitally removed

Kim Jong-Un’s uncle has been digitally removed

Source: Business Insider 

4. When the Reality is Perceived of Being Faked…

Palestinian refugees lining up for food aid in Syria – March 2014

“A picture is worth a thousand words”

Palestinian refugees lining up for food aid in Syria – March 2014

Palestinian refugees lining up for food aid in Syria – March 2014

This United Nations photograph became such an arresting image of the Syrian civil war that many have suggested that it was digitally faked, especially after the photo has been retweeted more than eight million times.

Britain’s Daily Mail called it a “biblical picture of suffering.” People are incredulous because it’s hard to believe that such a tragedy can happen in the 21st century.

“The photo is an exact replica of reality” – Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Source: The New York Times

How much can you trust a digital image? The great British war photographer and photojournalist, Don McCullin has the answer:

“Digital photography can be a totally lying kind of experience, you can move anything you want… the whole thing can’t be trusted really.” – Don McCullin