The ethics of photo manipulation

The art of photography lost its reliability and innocence many years ago. With invention of digital cameras, powerful personal computers, and modern photo-editing software photo manipulation have become the habitual thing.

Photo manipulation seems to be the product of Photoshop and other software similar to it. But it’s not true!

Photo manipulation originates from the times of the Civil war. Mathew Brady was the famous photographer at that time. Mathew Brady and one of his hired photographers Alexander Gardner changed the history by using the photo manipulation for the first time. They took the photo of Abraham Lincoln standing tall and looking dignified.

The examination of this photo showed that it was false: the body, depicted on it is not Abraham Lincoln. Gardner combined the body of southern politician John Calhoun and the head of Abraham Lincoln. Such kinds of “editing” are able to change the history and the points of view of the people about what happened during the Civil war.

In support of this statement it is possible to remember one more example from the history. The Russian dictator Joseph Stalin had changed hundreds of his historical photos. One of the most famous examples is the picture of Stalin strolling with commissar of water transport Nikolai Yezhov. After Stalin had executed him he deleted him from all historical photos. Stalin very often used photo manipulation for the propaganda of his views. It was not the single example: the photo of Lenin and his wife, on a background of which there was a telescope. By Stalin’s order telescope was changed on the gun. The aim was to change the image of Lenin in the eyes of the people. Stalin wanted to make the cult of his personality steadfast.

All these experiments with photo manipulating have turned photo journalism into the field of battle. The border between trustworthy and non- trustworthy information is very unstable. Most of photographers as usual follow definite ethical rules in their work. But photo journalists and media photography understand the ethic of photo manipulation in different ways. Photo journalists consider that manipulation can distort the information, but media photography is sure that it is good for the advertising.

This photo was made in 1936. Mao Tse-tung (first from the right) had removed Po Ku (first from the left) from the original variant, after Po Ku fell out of favor with Mao.

August 1989. In this photo the famous TV-star Oprah Winfrey. It was created by the combining the head of Winfrey and body of actress Ann-Margret, taken from a picture which was made in 1979. The composition was created without permission of these ladies. The falsification was determined by the Ann-Margret’s fashion designer, who recognized the dress.

January 2003: The original copy of the Beatles Abbey Road album cover shows Paul McCartney (The Beatles), third in line, holding a cigarette. United States poster companies have removed the cigarette from McCartney’s hand. This change was made without the permission of either McCartney or Apple Records, which owns the rights to the image. “We have never agreed to anything like this,” said an Apple spokesman. “It seems these poster companies got a little carried away. They shouldn’t have done what they have, but there isn’t much we can do about it now.” (Photo Tampering Throughout History)

The Indian movie star Khushboo brought an action against the journal “Maxim” for the publication of manipulating photograph. Photographer spliced the head of the actress with the scantily clad body of an unknown model. The Indian version of the magazine under the heading “Women you will never see in Maxim – 100% fake”. Magazine editor, Sunil Mehra, said “We are deeply apologetic for causing any inadvertent hurt and offence to Khushboo. Despite an apology, Khushboo plans to go to court, “Indeed the punishment that is finally meted out to them should be a deterrent against anyone who tries to treat women as a commodity and exploit them as they please. I will not opt for any kind of out-of-court settlement,” she said. ( Photo Tampering Throughout History)

When we edit or change the photo in Photoshop we deal with the questions of ethic and aesthetics. But this discussion isn’t limited to conversations about digital manipulation; it includes also conventional darkroom methods.

Ethic is the set of definite rules which we determine to know what is good and what is bad. Aesthetics in its turn deals with the notion of beauty, art, and taste.

With the development of digital technologies the distinctions between these two notions have practically erased. The question is in what cases the wish for something ideal and especial violates our ethics?

All photo-sessions in fashion magazines are very often edited. A lot of women try to copy their favorite actresses and models with ideal bodies; they torture themselves with diets and starvation to look like them. Such “cult of body” has changed not only the women’s world-view but also men’s. They want to see only ideal women in their lives.

Photo manipulation is often used for the changing the people’s point of view about the world they live. For example, the photo of Lebanon was edited for the worse. A lot of smoke was added, several buildings were the same. In such manner someone tried to change the opinion about this country and its people.

Sampling and Ownership

The original photo is often taken from the outside (however the source is World Wide Web). Photographer who created the source photo is not a manipulator. In other words manipulator doesn’t have the legal right to change this photo. Manipulator creates new unique image which may not even be recognizable. There is a question about plagiarism: is taking a sampling of another’s work cam be plagiarism?

Photos as a Right and as History

From the one hand photographer who changes the photo self-expresses in such manner and shows his world-view. But we as a citizenry of our state and our planet have the right for the reliable information and relevant news. The purpose of modern news and freedom of speech is getting the true information and forming exact and right opinion about existent events. But not only current decisions depend on current information. It is a question of historical reliability of facts. The main aim of modern society is preservation the truth history for the next generations.

Cropping and Overlapping

Cropping as itself is quite provocative method. This is the way of looking into the fact in other manner.

Overlapping is contradictory to the ethics according to the Webster University Journal, because with the help of this tool it is possible to change the picture radically.

Intent and Context

What is the purpose of photo manipulation? It can be very different: from attempting to simulate reality, deceiving the reader to think it is reality, entertaining the audience, or to show off skills (Photo Manipulation). There are ethical methods but unethical aims. The context of the picture and current information are also important: “Context becomes a problem when we find digitally altered photos in reputable publications”. (Photo Manipulation)


There are some ways of distinguishing the original picture from photo manipulation. Fred Ritchin, former New York Times Magazine photo editor created the icon to be placed on the edited photo shows whether it is false or true. This icon is a tiny crossed-out lens, but this device was not well perceived.

Next method of distinguishing is a customer. Every person who reads newspapers or magazines should select what can be true. The person’s opinion mustn’t depend on only printed or TV sources. We shouldn’t forget that news is made by people who have their points of view, but they don’t have a right to force us to think in the same manner.

Studying the history and ethics of photo manipulation I made the decision that there is a great possibility that history is not always true and facts sometimes are not reliable. Even one hundred years ago people wanted to see only what they want to see. And they found the way of doing it. Photo manipulation can be the tool for the real talented professional, who will be able to create digital masterpieces; or it can be the weapon in hands of swindlers who can use this invention for the enrichment or in political aims. The customers should be very attentive and wise and do not believe in everything printed in magazines and newspapers.

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