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Big story up on the Front Page today about how the Economist manipulated a photograph in order to pursue an alleged narrative about the President's relationship to the BP Oil spill.  It's quite the scandal, as the photo editors have removed people from the original photograph, apparently showing the President in a different light than what the original context suggests.

You may be surprised to know, though, that this isn't the first time they've manipulated photos in order to press a 'narrative'.  Copious examples below:

There are pretty blatant examples of political hagiography, stripping a photograph of all its background content in order to present the subject in a favored light (or even giving him a different background altogether)...

or likewise taking one politician's image and placing it in another background in order to push the narrative that the politician is a shady dude...

or for that matter using the same technique to show that another politician is a mean, scary dude.  Or incompetent...

or how about taking images from two separate photographs in order to create the illusion that two people are arguing with/not speaking to each other?  or that they're getting along fine?

So yeah, there's a reasonable discussion to be had about the art of cover photos, whether they differ in some intrinsic way from photos that accompany news stories, what responsibilities the magazine when using photographs, what constitutes ethical or unethical manipulation of images, and especially what our role as readers should be when faced with images like these.

Unfortunately that's not happening in the comments section of the FP story. where discussion has been largely divided between the belief that the Economist are engaged in deliberate mendacity and others who think there's no there there.  There are some good exceptions: here, here, here, among others.

So... can we have that discussion?  What do you consider a reasonable/unreasonable line for image manipulation, especially as it pertains to cover art?  Are any of the covers I've linked above problematic?  If so, which ones?

Another potential firebomb of a question: after reviewing the covers above, do you notice whether your instinct to find them problematic is tied to methodology (a particular set of standards about the image) or ideology (your feelings about the politics of the result)?  For the heavily introspective: is the latter shaping the former?

Should the recent Obama/BP photo have been manipulated more?

What say you?


If we're ready for the advanced work, we can check out resources like the National Press Photographers Association Statement of Principle, which covers reporting rather than editorializing, but it's a good place to start.

Then it's on to sites like Ethics in Editing, or thoughtful essays like this, or any of the myriad of discussions one can find via the Google.

Originally posted to De hominis dignitate on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 11:27 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  very interesting and (8+ / 0-)

    thought-provoking diary.  I hadnt thought about it that much.  

    Thank you.

  •  I haven't read the comments on the (9+ / 0-)

    front page post, but after a cursory glance at the covers in question, my first instinct is to say that there is a difference between your examples and the current Economist cover, which is that in all of your examples, it's clear that the photograph is manipulated to make a point. You can't look at those and think they're a direct reflection of a reality; they're clearly interpretations. Putin was not hanging around on a shadowy streetcorner, Obama was not striding through a white cloud, etc.

    But that's not true about the current cover. I think yeah, they should've manipulated it more or not at all.

    My son asked me about the difference between teasing and lying. "Lying is when you want the other person to believe you're telling the truth," is what I finally came up with.

    "Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror."

    by GussieFN on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 11:42:38 AM PDT

    •  Well, that raises a couple of interesting points. (7+ / 0-)

      As you say (and contrary to what most of the argument has been about so far) you're arguing that the manipulation should have been more blatant, i.e. that it should have been manipulated more.  And it raises a good point about whether our eyes instinctively separate out 'impossible' images from 'possible' ones in choosing how to judge a photograph, and whether an editor has a responsibility to signal to the reader 'this is fake'.

      The other is whether we believe that the cover is supposed to be telling us 'the truth' (whatever that means), that is, is it presented as documentary or editorial?  

      However, Putin really does hang around on shadowy street corners.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 11:46:15 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Ha! But when he's hanging around shadowy (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Sychotic1, pico, nonnie9999

        streets, he doesn't allow photographers!

        I think that yes, on the cover of a news magazine, the editor has the responsibility to signal 'this is fake.' Which really is the signal: this is commentary.

        I think it's completely fair to doctor a photo to make it appear that Obama is standing alond on the beach--or to doctor the hagiographic photo--as long as it's clear it's doctored. If there were oily tentacles reaching for him, the whole thing would be a non-issue.

        Do you read the Economist? I hesitate to weigh in because I don't read it. I read the New Yorker, and the New Yorker's controversial cartoon cover was completely fine with me. The argument seemed to be, "People who don't read the New Yorker won't get it.' Which is maybe true, but it's not the New Yorker's job to cater to people who don't read them. (And at least to my mind, they're not a news magazine like the Economist, but I'm not sure if I'm right about that; and a cartoon is tough to mistake for reality.)

        "Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror."

        by GussieFN on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 11:53:12 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Here and there. (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          GussieFN, nonnie9999

          I haven't read this particular article, and I'm really curious to see how they describe the cover image (as in do they just say "photo credit Reuters" or do they include the information that it's a "design", etc.?)  

          And as far as I know, no one reads the New Yorker.

          Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

          by pico on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 11:55:11 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  You know, looking more closely at the (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            cover, I'm not sure if it really does look like it's supposed to real as opposed to commentary. Could almost be a picture of Obama looking down at his dog plopped down in a file photo of a rig in the background.

            Starting to think it's borderline, but maybe not over the line.

            "Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror."

            by GussieFN on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 12:10:26 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  Oh, and also: (6+ / 0-)

      so we agree that the Obama image is hagiographic: is it ethical to pull that image out of context in order to make that editorial point?  It's very clear that the context is different from the result, right?

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 11:48:19 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Yes, the problem with the particular Economist (6+ / 0-)

      cover in question is that it is very close to reality.

      It's like when someone at Daily Kos does a snark diary and people mistake it for real because it's too close of a caricature.

      Maybe the Economist needs the equivalent of a "snark" tag.

  •  If you think in terms of an analogy with words, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pico, nonnie9999

    words can tell a truth or they can lie. There can also be literal truth or "higher truth." Words cover a spectrum from concrete to abstract: they can be recorded, quoted, reported, interpreted, edited, composed, created, fictionalized. The key is to make sure it's clear to the audience what kind of text they are reading.

    I think in the case of the Economist covers, you've made a good case that their audience should know that they manipulate images to make an editorial point.

    •  i don't think most people... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pico, luckylizard, a night owl

      take magazine covers as the gospel truth.  do any of them ever tell you that the people on the cover have been airbrushed?  i think it's like the cover of a book.  you want to get an idea what's inside.  however, if it is implied that it's an undoctored photo by crediting the photo to a certain photographer or news agency, then the original photo should be included so that the viewer knows that it has been altered.

      I didn't get Jack from Abramoff...I'm not a Republican!

      by nonnie9999 on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 12:07:36 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yeah, the cover doesn't bother me on an editorial (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        keirdubois, GussieFN, pico, nonnie9999

        level. It's not like the image they used is some horrible manipulation of reality (if the photographer's angle had been slightly different or if Obama had been slightly to the left, bingo, money shot!).

        The cover would bother me, however, if it were presented as "photojournalism" or even as an example of a simple photograph (as opposed to "cover art").

  •  Think how much easier Winston Smith's... (5+ / 0-) would have been if Big Brother had given him a copy of Photoshop.

    Haley Barbour: "No one has more to lose in this deal than BP."

    by Meteor Blades on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 11:47:28 AM PDT

  •  nice work (8+ / 0-)

    imho, hard to articulate clearly and take all cases into account, but one can discern when something has gone too far. In the case of Obama with no background that you link above, for example, the very medium of representation has been highlighted by this obvious manipulation--thus it's a kind of artwork. In the cover photo highlighted in the NYT blog and then dK FP, the use of an actual photo without obvious signalling to its representational medium and just changing the image through erasure is dishonest. In the second case, the viewer is being deceived; in the first, the viewer is along for the representational ride and alerted to its artificial status. We could get into interesting discussions about photorealism in art and representational levels and all sorts of things, but I really need to stop procrastinating! I've surpassed my break time! :)

    There are moments when the body is as numinous as words, days that are the good flesh continuing. -- Robert Hass

    by srkp23 on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 11:47:59 AM PDT

    •  Heh, you're as bad as I am. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      nonnie9999, JVolvo, Eric Nelson

      It's a good point, and unfortunately I can't think of counterrexamples because I'd have to know that the image was manipulated in the first place.  If I can't tell... then it reinforces your point to an extent.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 11:51:57 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  "the Economist" had a narrative to tell. They (8+ / 0-)

    manipulated language and imagery to do it. This image never actually happened though.

    The artilce begins with the following paragraph:

    For over a month, Barack Obama watched the oil spillspread over the gulf of Mexico with the same powerless horror as other Americans. Finally, lampooned by his countrymen for his impotence, he was spurred into action. He attacked the only available target-BP-and, to underline the seriousness with which he takes this problem, he gave his first Oval office address on the subject.

    The address got poor reviews; the attack on BP better ones..

    Right wing spin:

    Bowing in impotence

    He was lampooned (  by his countrymen...RW spin)

    He "attacked" - (obviously the wrong target)

    Spurred into action - (had no plan or motivation..weak and indecisive)

    He didn't understand the seriousness

    shitty address

    FIRST address - didn't talk fast enough

    sorry "the Economist" - Fail..bullshit propaganda

    It's always ideology..this is show business same as it always is
    Thanks pico t'd & r'd

    Sorry no link..I read the magazine article itself

    I don't want your country back..I want my country forward - Bill Maher

    by Eric Nelson on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 12:03:58 PM PDT

  •  In my professional, designerly opinion... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sychotic1, pico, JVolvo, Eric Nelson

    ...this gets a tip and a rec.

    Let me think about it a little more before jumping in "intelligently." I do this stuff every day, and am far more inclined to side with maisey's comment about how this is/has been/should be done.

    More later, promise.

    •  Looking forward to what you have to say. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      keirdubois, Sychotic1, JVolvo, Eric Nelson

      As a complete non-professional, I really want to hear from the people who know the trade and its expectations.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 12:08:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Okay (15+ / 0-)

        In thinking it over I decided I may not have as much wisdom to impart as I thought—especially since I made several contradictory comments in the FP diary.

        I say this because the work I do is rarely hard editorial in nature; the firm I work at designs two magazines in-house: one for fitness/beauty (where we get to go crazy in full color) and one for education/research (where it's all black & white except for the cover). Since I do more of the latter (but some of the former) I can safely say this:

        In my work, magazine covers are art, like book covers or CD covers or whatever. They are there to sell the product and not to editorialize—therefore they can be altered to get the "best" image to do the job. However, there are some pretty standard do's and don't's:

        • Don't flip a photo if something in it will read backwards (duh, but this happens a lot).

        • If you're creating a montage that is supposed to appear "real" (i.e. the McCain/Obama image pico cited), make sure the light is coming from the same direction. Adjust if necessary. I saw a Rob Pattinson/Kristen Stewart image that executed this particularly poorly.

        • Correct skin blemishes if they wouldn't be missed. Zapping zits is ok, but airbrushing away distinctive features (i.e. Cindy Crawford's mole or Gorbachev's birthmark) is a no-no. Also, if you're going to use the airbrush tool, for god's sake don't overdo it. Even Joan Rivers needs to look semi-human.

        • Hair: Avoid sloppy crops of hair. Bald guys like me are the best subjects in this case—we're easy to clip out of a background—but there are tools to use (in steps, and in conjunction) that can avoid the hair-helmet-head syndrome. It can take time.

        None of those things are really on-topic, though. I guess I should say that for the most part, when I edit photography it's to adjust for technical errors. We get a lot of amateur snapshots that are less-than-ideal in terms of lighting (classroom florescent lights suck), composition, etc. So sometimes I have to do things like blur the background a bit (or other such things) to make the subject stand out better.

        Color-adjustment actually takes up more time than you'd think, especially if your monitor is not color-calibrated to the same settings as your print vendor's. Different skin tones require different work: if you pull too much yellow on a Caucasian, he/she will look sunburned; if you pull too much cyan on an African-American, he/she will look sea-sick.

        So that's the roundabout way of putting myself down on the side of calling it "art," but that doesn't mean that the work can be allowed to get away with sloppy/obvious mistakes. I'm thinking that's what happened here: an art director made a sloppy call that Editorial (for whatever reason) was ok with because it fit a certain narrative.

        Of course, that's total speculation from me—but that's why I'm choosing to sneer at this particular photoshop fuckupery—it's half-assed, less-than-professional work. Nobody should be fired, but they should totally be forced to endure professional ridicule for at least a year.

        That's all. :)

  •  Awesome rejoinder (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    For the elite there are no material problems, only PR problems. Time for a new elite.

    by Paul Goodman on Mon Jul 05, 2010 at 02:22:38 PM PDT

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