why'd they do that? {media}

Time Magazine's cover picture about the protests in Iran carries a credit line that says the photo has been "digitally altered." It doesn't say HOW the photo was altered, so I find the disclosure pretty much useless.

It's fairly common practice for page designers to extend the sky at the top of a picture or the dark areas at the bottom of a picture to fill out the dimensions of a page, and/or to create a handy place to put text. But Time doesn't say exactly what was done to the cover photo, and I find myself doubting that it is even a photo at all.

It's possible that the sky was extended here. I don't think the photographer would compose the picture with all that empty space at the top of the frame. It just doesn't make sense, compositionally speaking. So sure, the designer could create a place for the cover text to go.

But without more information about the digital alteration, I found myself looking harder at the overall picture, and the more I do, the more it looks like a collage to me. Was the woman really standing in the foreground with her arms raised like that? Or was she "layered" into the photo? Was she really standing in front of structure that way? And what is that fence with the people standing behind it in the middle of the frame? Was that really there too? Or is this a composited picture with three or four source photographs?

I don't have a problem at all with composited photos. I once tried for days to get a shot of New York's Times Square that conveyed all the energy and light and movement of the scene, and I found it impossible to get. So I brought pieces of FIVE photos together, and I thought it worked ok:
But I would never have presented the photo as a straight "news" photo.

In the age of digital, telling the truth photographically is more important than ever. Any publication that wants to maintain its credibility and authority owes it to readers to explain what was done to a photo, and why. It's been a battle for years. Remember when New York Newsday doctored photos to show ice-skating rivals Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan on the same practice rink before the Olympics? Remember the differences in skin tone between Time and Newsweek versions of the same shot of O.J. Simpson? And remember when an L.A. Times photographer was fired for cloning in a bit of the crowd in a protest photo from Iraq?

Photo editors for news organzations are generally pretty clear on the subject: You can't alter an image digitally beyond what might be done in a darkroom. You can adjust for exposure, color balance and saturation, say, but you can't put something there that wasn't there in the original.

Back a few years ago at the Chronicle, we had a special baseball preview section that raised similar concerns. The cover shot prominently featured then-Giants manager Dusty Baker. His arms were extended, and he was holding a ticket in one of his hands. But the frame cut off a tiny portion at the end of the ticket. A page designer filled in the corner of the ticket because it suited his design needs for the cover. That sparked an hours-long "conversation" between the art department and the photo department that at times got more than a little hot. We eventually decided to have a somewhat less than perfect design for the sake of maintaining the integrity of the photo. The photo hadn't been altered significantly at all, but we all felt (well, almost all of us felt) that the principle was worth defending.

I'm pragmatic about it. If a compelling cover about the Iranian election leads more people to read about what's happening there, I'm all for it. And if you want to use a combination of two or three or a dozen photos to create that compelling cover, that's fine. But just tell me that's what's going on. And that means saying more than Time has in this case, that a photo has been "digitally altered." That's just not enough.


  1. great post, and i agree wholeheartedly with your commentary.

  2. That Time photo manipulation of OJ you have at the bottom of your post shows why it's not the most trustworthy of magazines when it comes to photo manipulation. Perhaps that's their effort at a disclaimer to avoid more problems of the type.

    I know pretty much nothing about photo manipulation, but I think you are right about the sky, at the very least. The bottom appears to me as if it has been darkened/fuzzed out because of how it fades into nothingness. So I think that's probably another bit of manipulation. You may be right about a composite as well, but if that's the case--even leaving aside any other ethical issues about using photo composites--it's a horrible choice when the cover story is subtitled "What I saw at the revolution."

  3. It's too bad that the press can't be more objective. Instead, the editorial process has leached into digital image manipulation. Little wonder that the press is held in low regard in the USA.

  4. If memory serves, Dusty was silhouetted and used as an accent, so the picture was already compromised - taken out of the realm of a news photograph. While I agree that news photographs are sacrosanct, adding the corner of the ticket was hardly fiddling with the news. That argument was memorably epic, probably 5 or more man hours. Them were the days!

    a designer

  5. karen (astro_twilight)July 2, 2009 at 11:30 AM

    I agree that when a photograph is depicting an historical event it should be honest and unaltered. Photo jounarlism is supposed to be objective as seen through the eyes of the photographer and not through the eyes of the art department. For all I know the woman in the forground could have beeen shgot in the studio. That would make it more of a statement than an actual event. Time has the responisbility to let its readers know what is truth not propaganda.