The Ethics of Photo Editing: Truth, Lies, and Views of the World

Since the earliest cave drawings, artists have interpreted the world around them in ways that best communicate what they want the viewers to understand.

By its very nature, two-dimensional illustrations are abstract. The world is in three dimensions, four if you count color, and five if we add time. Paintings, drawings, and photographs are almost always flat with only two dimensions and often with modified colors or no color at all in the case of black and white photographs or charcoal or pencil drawings.

Photographers, like painters, decide what they want in the photograph and what to leave out to best illustrate the point or describe the subject best to viewers. The most basic way to do this is when we decide what to photograph. The next decision is the composition and angle of view. We make similar decisions in post-production. In the film era post-production was done in the darkroom, in the digital era, post-production is done on the computer. Only the techniques have changed.

The most basic post-production procedure is cropping or removing part of the picture. Whether we crop in the camera by how we compose the scene, with an enlarger, or using Photoshop, the idea is the same, modifying the image by removing distractions to better illustrate what we want to show. When printing from a negative with an enlarger, it is only practical to remove something from the edge of the photograph. Removing something from inside the scene usually involves an airbrush or some other artistic technique. The Photoshop Remove tool can easily remove power poles or anything else that detracts from what we want to show.

Since the beginning of photography, photographers have modified images, sometimes for humor or just to put the subject in a better light. We have always removed “zits” and softened wrinkles in portraits, perhaps more in earlier days than now. Obvious fakes, such as giant vegetables or ghost images using double exposures, have been around for well over a hundred years.

Better computer techniques and more recently Generative AI, have made such modifications easier and less obvious. The problems arise when these modified images are claimed to be unmodified. For example, suppose a photographer photographs the Board of Directors of an organization, but one board member is missing. He later photographs that board member and adds them to the original picture. If the caption indicates that the photograph is of the entire board, that is true and legitimate. If the caption indicates that all of the board members were at this meeting that would be lying and fraudulent.

If the photo is a police photograph used in a court of law, additional documentation to certify that it is a true and accurate depiction of the scene is necessary. Otherwise, the viewer must assume that some adjustments could have been made.

A real estate photographer photographing houses for sale should probably avoid trash day when all of the dumpsters are along the street. If that is not possible, he can move them out of the way to get the photo. Removing the dumpsters in post-production using Photoshop might be easier than dragging the dumpsters out of the way. There is no difference. Adding trees or landscaping might be considered unacceptable unless it is a new house under construction, and it was clear that this is approximately what it will look like when completed.

The intent and purpose of the photograph must always be considered. A photojournalist who is representing the photograph as exactly the way the scene looked will have less tolerance for post-production editing than an advertising photographer whose job is to make the product look as good as possible. However, we must remember that the journalist made thousands of decisions about what to photograph, what angles to use, and what to add or leave out of the image when the shutter is fired. The photographer probably made dozens of exposures. After that, the photo editor of the publication, in choosing which photos to use, decided what story they wanted the photos to tell.

An advertising photo such as a photograph of a food item on the menu in a restaurant, on television, or in a magazine is probably not going to look exactly like the product when it is served. Very few people would complain that their dinner at a restaurant does not look exactly like the photo on the cover of the menu. We have come to expect that products and people will look their best in photographs and that a certain amount of styling and retouching is normal.

The problems arise when photographs are intentionally designed to deceive. For example, a photograph of a politician or celebrity that has been modified to show the person in an awkward position or embracing someone with the intent to defame that person is obviously wrong. Equally wrong would be the opposite to show someone in a place or with people that would make them look better as if they had actually been there. We can easily add ourselves to a photo of the Eiffel Tower or Waikiki Beach to make it look like we had been there. If the purpose was for an ad to advertise a soft drink, it would be a completely different situation than if it were to deceive our friends with something that is not true.

Creating or modifying images has been the norm since ancient days. Whether it is with a paintbrush or computer software the result is the same. Generative AI makes it much more difficult to see modifications or even recognize a completely computer-generated image. As consumers, we must be aware of the artists’ intentions and not assume that photographs don’t lie any more than we would assume that the paintings by the great masters of previous generations were true and accurate renditions of what they saw.

The question is not whether retouching or generative AI is OK, the question is whether fraud and lying are OK. As photographers, we are often caught in the middle. It is now as easy to lie and deceive with photographs as it is with words. How do we want our work to influence another person’s view of the world?