A Photojournalistic Confession
September 2003

by Kenny F. Irby


I couldn't take it anymore. So, I confessed: I dodge and burn. There, I said it, in front of photographers and everyone. Except, this practice isn't really a secret or a sin. Unless it's taken to extremes, but more about that later.

My confession aligned me with Patrick Schneider of The Charlotte Observer. He, too, has admitted to dodging and burning. In his case, the three altered photographs won him awards that were recently rescinded by the North Carolina Press Photographers Association. (Click here to read the letter Chuck Liddy, president of NCPPA, sent to members about the incident.)

My confession came the same day the newspaper announced Schneider's three-day unpaid suspension -- Friday, Aug. 15. I was in San Diego, before a room filled with about 35 colleagues, assembled to talk about "Ethics and the Power of Photoshop" at the Asian American Journalist Association's 16th annual convention.

I was there to moderate the panel, which included industry leaders and picture editors Cecilia Bohan, The New York Times; Giuliana Nakashima, Washington Post; Bernadette Tuazon, Associated Press; and Michael Franklin, San Diego Union Tribune. Our mission was to discuss creative imaging practices and clarify the issues.

Accepted practice

Long before the digital photography revolution, photographers, retouch artists, and prepress technicians used darkroom enlarger and stat-camera techniques to adjust tonal range, contrast, and color saturation. These techniques modified photographic images by dodging (lightening a specific area) and burning (darkening a specific area).

For all you writing colleagues, the adjustments can change the mood and meaning of a photograph, just as stretching or breaking the rules of grammar can change the mood and meaning of a sentence.

Most sentences require some editing or rearranging to make sense, and most photographs, particularly digital ones, require some basic toning and preparation to meet production standards. Dodging and burning is part of that process.

Most, maybe all, of the great photojournalists have employed the technique of dodging and burning: Gordon Parks, W. Eugene Smith, Stan Grossfeld, Carol Guzy, and John White, to name a few.

In darkrooms across this great country, I dodged and burned at Boston University, the University of Missouri, Cal State Long Beach, The Boston Globe, The Associated Press, NASA headquarters, The Bureau of Land Management, The Philadelphia Daily News, The Red Bank Register, The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, The Oakland Press, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Kansas City Star, Newsday, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and yes, even at The Poynter Institute.

The technique did not begin with the advent of Adobe Photoshop, the now-dominant digital imaging software program found on a desktop near you, maybe even on your own desktop. But it did become easier. And the manipulation is now seamless and virtually undetectable. For me, this is a critical issue.

Going too far

What is unacceptable is the extreme usage of the "Hand of God" technique, which involves a photographer using traditional or digital means to increase the intensity of light. The reverse process of dodging could also eliminate detail, although the practice is less common.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and now Associate Editor of the Boston Globe, Stan Grossfeld is viewed as one of the most adept practitioners of the "Hand of God" technique.

"One must first understand that film (or digital) does not record the scene the way the human eye sees it. The human eye goes to the lightest part of the picture. That is a fact, and sometimes the highlight is not where I want the person looking at my work to focus," says Grossfeld.

"There is always some sort of interpretation involved with reporting. A good photographer is just like a good reporter; he (or she) wants to get you to the dramatic point. Good reporting does not meander about, it gets to the point with the lead and nut graphs. [With photography] you go right to the dramatic element -- you make the eye go to the center of what is in the frame (composition)."

"Burning is really to redirect the eye to the center of the image, not to eliminate content," Grossfeld says. "You have to be true to the reader about what you witnessed."

NCPPA president Liddy agrees. "As news photographers, we have a duty to accurately portray what we see, not what we WANT to see."

"We all use Photoshop. It's a wonderful addition to our profession. Having been in the business for a long time I can truthfully say 'these are the good old days.' But with this great new technology come grave and serious risks," Liddy says.

Establishing standards

"The prior standards for black and white printing are no longer sufficient to accommodate the current knowledge and skill levels of digital imaging. People have gotten way too creative with these new tools," explains Harry Walker, Director of Photography at Knight Ridder Tribune News Service in Washington, D.C.

Schneider agrees that the standards are insufficient. "Calling my work into question also raises questions for the profession as a whole. NPPA has opinions, but no firm standards, about the levels that backgrounds can be burned down. And those opinions leave opportunity for wide-ranging interpretation. Until recently, North Carolina Press Photographers Association had no standards or guidelines either," said Schneider.

As the keynote speaker at a photojournalism workshop in Grandfather Mountain, N.C., one day after his suspension was announced, Schneider defended his integrity before more than 200 attendees. "There are some clear rules, and I've never broken them," he said.

For the AAJA panelists, the most pressing issue was not analyzing Schneider's case but how to help the journalism industry establish the necessary standards, along with policies to prevent and penalize aggressive techniques. All agreed that training and communication will be crucial.

As a result of Schneider's awards being rescinded and an internal audit, The Charlotte Observer has clarified its standards. "Our policy is: What we see is what we publish and is what we enter in contests," said Tom Tozer, deputy managing editor presentation at the newspaper.

The N.C. Press Photographers Association is re-evaluating its standards, and in some ways has defined them by saying Schneider's pictures were unacceptable. And the National Press Photographers Association has a committee in place to re-evaluate its code of ethics.

Rich Beckman, professor and Visual Communication sequence head at UNC's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, believes that, "Every photojournalist has to have and follow his or her own individual ethical guidelines based on industry standards, even if the newspaper he or she works for does not understand or apply them."

"It is not a suitable defense to say that the newspaper or the contest did not have specific guidelines regarding removing content from documentary images, whether by burning, dodging, or cloning. The result is the same and it is not acceptable. It violates the reader's trust and hurts the credibility of photojournalism," said Beckman.

Protecting that credibility will require more discussion and action, but before that can happen, we must all confess. Repeat after me: "I have dodged and burned." It's the first step on the road to recovery.

Editor's Note: Poynter Online requested the raw files from the Charlotte Observer, but our request was denied. Deputy managing editor for presentation Tom Tozer said, "We are treating the raw files like notes in a writers' notebook." Sixteen raw images were released to the NCPPA for its review.

This article has been re-published with permission from PoynterOnline.


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