The truth of digital photography in journalism

Posted: August 18, 2010 in Photojournalism
Tags: , , , , ,

In the last chapter of his book Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography, Geoffrey Batchen argues that photography’s death is eminent due to two concerning developments. First, the digitization of photographic processes will lead to an inability to differentiate the real from the fake photo and thus reduce the ‘photograph’s ability to deliver objective truth.’ The second concern is an epistemological development where new technologies from digitization to cosmetic surgery to genetic engineering make it harder and harder ‘to tell original from its simulation.’

There is truth in both of his arguments. Nevertheless, history has shown that as long as photography exists, it has been manipulated to accommodate personal desires or politics as the following examples will show. Photo manipulation was achieved by retouching with ink, paint, double exposure or different darkroom-involving techniques.

Famous Lincoln photo manipulation using Calhoun's body

One of the first cases of photo manipulation was a photograph of Abraham Lincoln which was altered using the body from a portrait of John C. Calhoun. Batchen acknowledges the existence of these sorts of manipulations but renders it almost irrelevant: ‘Photographs are no more or less ‘true’ to the facts of the appearance of things in the world than are digital images.’

The truth of photographs lies in their representation of actual reality, meaning the original presence of an object at the time of photography, whereas digital images (and he refers to images that have no origin other then the computer program) are ‘not so much signs of realities but signs of signs.’

This is a really interesting argument in regards to  journalism. As paragraph 9 of the Australian Journalism Association’s code of ethics outlines, pictures presented should be true and accurate, any manipulation likely to mislead should be disclosed.  So is the code of ethics in many other democracies in regards to photo manipulation. Nevertheless, we have seen a manifold of manipulated photos during recent years, most often in war and crisis contexts. The manipulation is often used by publishers to underline the message of their cover story, to sensationalize and provoke.


1994: OJ Simpson appears darker on the cover of Time magazine

The same photo appeared on the cover of Time magazine and Newsweek magazine after OJ Simpson had been arrested for murder. Time magazine was accused of manipulating the photograph to make Simpson appear ‘darker’ and ‘menacing’.


1997: Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt

After a terrorist attack at the temple Hatshepsut in Egypt had killed 58 tourists, the Swiss tabloid Blick digitally altered the color of the water to resemble blood flowing from the temple.


2003: Digital composite of a British soldier in Basra, Iraq

The top photo made it on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, shortly after the start of the war in Iraq. It was however a digital composite of two photographs. Staff photographer Brian Walski was fired after the editors discovered that the photo was a fake.


2006: Thick black smoke rising in the Lebanese capital after an Israeli air raid

This photograph by Adnan Hajj, a Lebanese photographer, was initially published by Reuters on their website. It had been manipulated by the photographer to show more and darker smoke above the Lebanese capital after an Israeli air raid.


Solitary President Obama on the beach inspecting the oil spill

This cover of The Economist shows a solitary President Obama inspecting the oil spill whereas on the original photo he has been standing together with a coast guard and a local parish president. The New York Times picked up on the manipulation and in response to their article, Emma Duncan, deputy editor of The Economist, stated: ‘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.’

It is not hard to see that in this context, Batchen definitely had a point when he said that digital images are not so much signs of realities but signs of signs. The photos above are not presenting reality but are presenting messages or signs. They show what the publisher wants us to see and not what is really there.


Batchen, G 1997, ‘Epitaph’ in Burning with desire: the conception of photography, MIT press, Cambridge, pp. 206 -216.

  1. Caroline Hardin says:

    Thanks for your work on this! It was a great summary – I showed it to my class during our section on ‘computer ethics and photo manipulation’!

    Caroline Hardin
    Globe University Madison East

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