Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy,
University of South Florida
Paul Elliott, Professor of Communications,
California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

Fade to Black:
Ethical Practices A Matter Of What The Camera Saw

(c) 2004

Many times in this column we have asserted that a curious aspect of ethical behavior is that acceptable practices change over time. What was once praised can at another time be condemned and what was once condemned can later be praised. That is not to imply that ethics is merely situational, but rather that professional conventions change due to technological changes and to new levels of professionalism. When standards are in transition, there is a period of inconsistency, when what is accepted within the profession and what is not seems somewhat arbitrary. We have an excellent example of this phenomenon in the award-winning photographs of Patrick Schneider and Rick Loomis (Schneider declined an interview and Loomis confirmed the facts for this column over the telephone).

Schneider of The Charlotte Observer, as you might recall, was stripped of three awards in the 2002 North Carolina Press Photographers contest and suspended from his job for three days when it was learned that he darkened the background of several images. One that stood out was an emotional picture of firefighters with the background completely eliminated through the use of PhotoShop manipulation. Loomis of the Los Angeles Times won the 2003 Newspaper Photographer of the Year award with a striking portfolio of images from Afghanistan. Nine pictures of his including the cover were published in the June 2003 issue when his award was announced. And in the January 2004 special edition, 24 of his photographs were published on the cover and on 17 pages. Four of the Loomis images shown in January had their backgrounds blackened with a more traditional technique than Schneider used -- a black cloth was held or laid under the subjects. Schneider's "black background" photos apparently did not run in the newspaper darkened but were only entered in the North Carolina contest. The Loomis portrait series didn't run in print but it did run on the Times' Web site along with a narration by the photographer in a one-year look at the work he did overseas.

David Zucchino, a reporter for the Times who accompanied Loomis in Afghanistan, e-mailed Donald Winslow, editor of this magazine, stating that Loomis did not darken the backgrounds with computer software. "Rick absolutely used a black cloth as a backdrop," Zucchino wrote. "In fact, I went with him when he bought it. I was there when those photos were made and can verify that the black cloth was used in every instance."

Perhaps the reason that Schneider had to return his awards while there's been no official objection from anyone associated with the NPPA contest over the Loomis portraits has to do with the inconsistent but current standard of the profession -- we tend to accept as more ethical procedures that capture "what the camera saw" and accept as less ethical procedures that are imposed later using software and a computer. A little stage managing, "working a subject" to get the right composition or expression, the use of lighting techniques including flash, and so on are generally considered acceptable by contemporary standards. Practices that result in the same kinds of images are generally condemned if they occur through manipulation that occurs after the fact -- either through traditional darkroom printing or on a computer.

Further complicating this issue is that studio-style techniques in the field are acceptable for some news photojournalism categories and not for others. Loomis called the images in which he used the black cloth portraits. Schneider called his computer-blackened photos news. The distinction may seem obvious enough, but a closer look at the Loomis photos makes the difference less clear.

Three of Loomis' award-winning images are clearly portraits (published on pages 46-47 of the January issue) as defined by the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar Digital Contest (and many other contests) as "a picture that captures an aspect of the subject's character." But of course a "portrait" is more complex. What category doesn't capture a subject's character? A more telling guideline for separating portraits from other types of news photography is that the subject knows that the image is being taken and the viewer knows that the subject knew. The most obvious visual cue of the often overt and sometimes tacit "contract" between subject and photographer is the simple connection of a person looking right into the lens of the camera, as with the portraits of Nazia and the land mine victims. Studio portrait techniques, under those conditions, are ethically acceptable by current convention. But if a viewer cannot reasonably assume that the image is a portrait, either the caption should make that fact clear -- or studio techniques should not be employed.

Environmental portraits have a long and honored tradition in photojournalism. Arnold Newman and John Loengard were two masters of this category. This type of image shows what a person looks like, but also reveals aspects of his/her personality and situation by the foreground and background objects within the camera's frame. An environmental portrait is a picture of a person AND that person's environment -- NOT simply a picture of a person. By using the black cloth in what would have otherwise been environmental portraits, Loomis chose to eliminate the background so that readers would more easily notice the people in the foreground. In doing so, he created a picture that was more portrait than environmental portrait and thus less like spot news. The studio technique is considered ethical by current standards because the images are clearly portraits and portraits are to a large extent staged.

But another picture by Loomis (published on January's page 44) in which the black cloth was employed is not so easily classified as a portrait. It is an image of widows "lining up to receive a monthly ration of supplies...." Yes, the black background allows a reader to concentrate on the women, but it is not clear to the viewer that the women know that the photo is being taken. Loomis confirmed they must have known because his assistants were holding the cloth beside them. But is this a portrait or general news?

The difference between an on-location news portrait in which studio techniques are used and a news picture in which such techniques are off limits seems to be increasingly difficult to discern. But the difference is easier to see than the distinction between the use of a blackout technique in the field and a blackout technique in a lab. The ethically telling question is, "What should the viewer be able to assume about how a news photo came to be made?"

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