Photojournalism’s digital alteration prevention strategy seems to be to wait for an infraction, blame photographer, check photographer off list of future offenders, put ethics in check, feel better about industry, wait for next infraction.

Perhaps digital alteration will always be the case of a rogue photographer. But we won’t know because we tend not to discuss other factors – like the assignment process between editors and photographers. Are editors and photographers communicating effectively? We discuss ethics on a global industry level but what about between just you and me?

From a New York Times correction explaining the removal Martins’ photographs from a gallery:

“Had the editors known that the photographs had been digitally manipulated, they would not have published the picture essay, which has been removed from”

Why didn’t the editors know? Are editors off the hook in cases of manipulation? Always hoodwinked? Taken by surprise? As an editor, I only like good surprises. I want more control over the final product.

The Martins situation brings up very interesting questions about the working relationship between editors and photographers. Specifically freelancers who are privy only to information given by editors. Are we communicating effectively?

What I know about Martins after about 15 minutes of research is that he a fine art photographer and not a photojournalist. On the Edgar Martins website, he describes his artistic expression.

“My work explores the concept of landscape as an idea and a form and summons a disquieting conjunction of reality, hyper-reality, fantasy and fiction.”

“Photography offers me a structure, the structures of the world. Using these as a starting point I am then able to redefine the parameters of the medium (whatever these may be).”

Martins has won awards for his landscape work – notably for Personal/Fine Art Series in the 2008 New York Photo Awards and second place at the Sony World Photo Awards. Fine art is not just Martins’ personal work. Fine art is Martins’ work.

The definition and purpose between the documentary and the fine art worlds are vastly different. Martins is a fine art photographer who did an editorial assignment for the New York Times newspaper. That doesn’t excuse him if he lied about alterations. But as an editor, for me, hiring Martins for an editorial job puts a few more layers of complexity into the assignment. I wish we would hear more from the NYT editors who worked with Martins about the process.

What can editors do to help mitigate misunderstandings or misinterpretations of definition and purpose with freelancers and staffers? I’m starting a list from my own experience.

1. Don’t assume. Send out ethics guidelines: Don’t assume a photographer knows your expectations or ethics guidelines of your publication. Email ethics guidelines separate from the contract. Talk about the guidelines before you start the assignment process.

2. Know the style and background of the photographer: Spend time researching a photographer’s work and philosophy. I am a proponent of trying new styles and new talent. But everyone has a comfort zone and if you ask a photographer to jump out of that zone be clear on your expectations. Portrait photographer shooting a riot. Fine art photographer shooting an editorial job. Editorial photographer shooting a commercial campaign. All possible scenarios but be realistic about results and clear on expectations.

3. Request a loose edit for the first few times you work together: Spot trouble early. Multiple frames from the same moment can be very illuminating. Once, while editing an assignment sent by a freelance photojournalist, I noticed that a poster had been removed from a wall between two sequential images. The photographer said the background looked too busy so physically moved the poster off the wall while on-site and continued shooting. We only published unaltered scenes with the hanging poster intact.

4. Problem? Be honest with yourself and others: In regards to composition, content, ethics, post-production and final results, I approach working with freelance and staff photographers the same way. If an assignment doesn’t go as planned, I am very honest with myself in terms of fault ratios. Editors have a responsibility not only to photographers but to the industry to inform, communicate and listen.

Two editors worked on the assignment with that poster moving photographer. Neither of us sent out the company’s ethics guideline which was standard to do with first-time freelancers. Busy office, blah, blah, blah. Should the photographer had known not to move the poster? Absolutely. Was my responsibility to send out the ethics email? Yes. Did I? Nope. I made sure my mistake was a learning moment for the photo department.

5. My ethics may not be your ethics: In grad school, one of my internships was at La Nacion in San Jose, Costa Rica. Great experience. During government press conferences, food buffets were set up for the press courtesy of the government. I never ate. The University of Missouri-Columbia taught me avoid all conflicts of interest. But different countries, different rules. The Costa Rican reporters ate without impropriety because they were following the accepted rules. My ethics may not be your ethics so make sure to communicate with the photographer.

6. Open door policy: Don’t hand off an assignment and sit silently for images. Let the photographer know you’re only a phone call away. Encourage questions and suggestions. Building a relationship helps build trust and understanding.

Let’s not wait for the next infraction. Communicate early and often. Be truthful.

-Sarah Evans

10 Responses to “Alteration and communication.”

  1. Sarah,
    I just wanted to thank you for such a thoughtful, balanced piece. I often feel like photographers who get “caught” digitally manipulating photos immediately become industry whipping boys; we cry fowl extra loud to disassociate ourselves from the “dishonest” tag that gets pinned to journalists too much these days. The fact is that we all bear responsibility for these problems (the publishers included for overworking and under-resourcing editors who should have time to do everything you suggest but often don’t) — and nothing is black & white. Instead of castigating, we need to be discussing, as you suggest.

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