July 9, 2010
When does artistic freedom actually trample on the hallowed ground of truth? Every now and then this question about how much artistic license a journalist can practice without compromising the integrity of his or her piece comes up.It is probably a challenge now more than it has been decades ago when Adobe Photoshop didn’t exist. Having this powerful tool within easy reach of a photo journalist or an editor makes it even harder for anyone in the publication industry to resist the temptation of “doctoring” a photo for a stronger impact or simply for aesthetic and dramatic effect.
Such was the debate on the recently released cover of “The Economist” featuring President Obama in a pensive, solitary state, looking down on the oily shore of the Gulf of Mexico with the oil spill clean up equipment looming albeit eerily on the background. From an artist’s perspective, it is a picture perfect cover that conjures up images of the dreadful lifelong environmental damage of the oil spill and the weight of the world that is upon this President. Brilliant and powerful!
The editor has picked a cover that speaks volumes of thoughts and emotions to The Economist readers.
But perfect it isn’t, at least not in the literal sense of the word. For while it captured an emotion-laden moment in this president’s life, the cover didn’t portray the truth as it was. It turned out that the original Reuters’ photo by Downing included Charlotte Randolph, president of a Louisiana parish, and Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, standing alongside President Obama.
Has the editor crossed the line and compromised integrity in this case of The Economist cover? Obviously not in the mind and belief of Economist deputy editor,Emma Duncan. She wrote in response to criticisms against the cover: I was editing the paper the week we ran the image of President Obama with the oil rig in the background. Yes, Charlotte Randolph was edited out of the image (Admiral Allen was removed by the crop).
We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers. We often edit the photos we use on our covers, for one of two reasons. Sometimes
— as with a cover we ran on March 27 on U.S. health care, with Mr. Obama with a bandage round his head — it’s an obvious joke. Sometimes — as with an image of President Chavez on May 15 on which we darkened the background, or with our “It’s time” cover endorsing Mr. Obama, from which the background was removed
altogether — it is to bring out the central character. We don’t edit photos in order to mislead. I asked for Ms. Randolph to be removed because I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn’t the point of the story. “The damage beyond the spill” referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America.
But “Politics Daily. com” columnist,Walter Shapiro isn’t budging.In his eyes, The Economist’s cover in question “represents the gold standard amid the tragic cheapening of print journalism”.He wrote, “In a shrinking world, the amount of foreign reporting in most publications is shrinking even faster, to the point of invisibility. But that is not the kind of press scandal that offers dramatic visuals like the before-and-after shots of the Reuters photograph that was used on The Economist’s ill-considered cover.” Shapiro, just like many of his colleagues in the industry, acknowledges the reality of a heavily photoshopped world we live in. Airbrushing, in fact doctoring photographs to create the image according to people’s liking and expectations is now more of a rule rather than an exception.
Presidents, like Hollywood stars, singers and sports celebrities, need to be presented in a very positive light and how they look in pictures, whether posed or candid, matters significantly that picking the right photo goes through a rigid selection process. Out of a hundred shots from one “Kodak” moment, only one or two
get picked for publication. It is absolutely forbidden for FDR to be photographed in wheelchair for a very valid
reason. No awkward photo of Imelda Marcos in her heydays could be published without repercussions to the photographer, editor and publisher. So, what’s the big deal about cropping one or two people or airbrushing the backdrop of a photograph for effect? “All the world’s a stage,” as Shakespeare puts it. Nothing is real or genuine anymore. The power of digital technology has transformed dreams and imaginations into pseudo reality. Everything has been about image crafting. It’s all about the looks, or so it seems. Personally, I’d go for the real flavor rather than the artificially enhanced one. A rehearsed response, no matter how smooth and good is still not a substitute to a spontaneous statement which mirrors the actual contents of one’s heart and mind. But as you can tell, it’s a matter of personal preference more than anything else.
I remember a conversation with my eldest child after he graduated from college and was applying for work. Looking at his resume, he lamented the fact that it could have looked so much better and more appealing to the interviewers if he had gone to a better known school, or studied harder to graduate with honors. He thought that between one who graduated from DeVry like he did, and another who finished at Loyola, there’s a likelihood that the latter will get picked. Yet, because he invested more in learning and didn’t stop growing, acquiring skills and learning more languages in his field, his school didn’t matter anymore.
And in the industry where he belongs, he has proven his mettle. What’s in his head is all that matters now, no longer the great school and honors that didn’t reflect in his resume.
I brought up this mother and son episode to prove my point that regardless of the crafting and photoshopping and cosmetic surgeries to alter or enhance the original, what lies within, i.e. the soul and character of the photograph, article or person is what will eventually judge their relevance, and yes, their integrity, too.