untrue blue, misbegotten moon

If you were into astronomy, and you knew that this photograph was taken at 6 p.m. in October in the eastern United States, you might find it deceptive. In real life, the moon was farther to the left, out of the frame, sitting just above the point in my next-door neighbor’s roof.

In a true story about the moon, I wouldn’t mention my next-door neighbor’s roof. Even if this were a story about how I see the moon in October in Baltimore, Crista’s roof would only be in the way. That is the luxury of editing.

When I look out the window of my attic to watch the sun set in the east, my peripherally adept eyes see the moon. Nudging it a few inches closer to the glowing clouds and delicious sunset is deceptive, as is erasing that nasty electrical line that always messes up my skies. But I wouldn’t mention those wires in the essay about the moon*.

The photography that accompanies nonfiction, especially when it’s in the newspaper, is held to some strict standards. And the issues seem as divisive and polarizing as politics. You’re likely to find nonfiction writers on the side of accuracy, rather than artistry—even those who practice what is called “creative” nonfiction.

But nearly as soon as there was photography, there was photo tampering. In fact, photo developers tamper with film all the time—with the slightest over- or under-development altering the so-called actual appearance of people, places, and things. Sometimes these are as serious as putting someone’s head on another’s body. Other times, it means enhancing someone’s skin or the low-lights in clouds.

Last year, I got into a big debate with my creative nonfiction group over a photograph by Allan Detrich that appeared in the Toledo Blade. It was deliberately altered. While all the other photojournalists were shooting from the same spot, only Detrich’s photo was missing a pair of jeans-clad legs in the background. Detrich, an award-winning photographer, removed them because it detracted from the photo.

Ron Royhab, the executive editor and VP of the Blade wrote in his editorial:

Readers have asked us why this was such a big deal. What’s wrong with changing the content of a photograph that is published in a newspaper?

The answer is simple: It is dishonest.

Journalism, whether by using words or pictures, must be an accurate representation of the truth.

…Details of the incident unfolded gradually in the days after Mr. Detrich’s digitally altered picture was published on March 31. The dramatic photograph showed members of the Bluffton University baseball team kneeling in prayer before playing their first game since five of their players died in a March 2 bus crash in Atlanta.

We did not know at the time of publication that the photographer, using a computerized photo-editing tool called Photoshop, had removed the legs of a person wearing blue jeans and standing in the background behind a banner.

It’s been a year and a half since the incident, and my contention is, still, that if editing is allowed in writing, it ought to be allowed in photography. I hold writers of nonfiction to strict standards. All of it must be true—from the color of the car to anything with quotation marks. It bothers me that David Sedaris exaggerates. It harms nonfiction when James Frey makes things up. A photo accompanying nonfiction must not make a blue car red. It must not add something that did not happen. It shouldn’t be an outright lie.†

The subject of the photo in question was a baseball team kneeling in prayer. It was not about a jeans-clad leg, even peripherally. The writer of such a story would not have mentioned the leg in the story. And were the photo simply cropped, we wouldn’t be discussing this at all. Why didn’t Detrich simply crop out that last banner? Instead, he straightened the poles and erased the legs. He turned an average photo into a piece of art. As a writer of nonfiction, creative or not, I appreciate the beauty of his work. And it’s still honest.

I can see the argument for absolute truth, exactly as the camera caught it. But that means no crops, ever; it means no color correction, no resolution adjustment, no saturation. Frankly, it means no black and white. What in our world is black and white? Using black and white film is an illegitimate choice in the first place. And shooting color digital and changing it to black and white afterward—heresy!

So what about the photo was harm or foul?

I think the fact that we can do this at all—that we can make a ball appear where it had appeared just a split second earlier, that we can erase ugly wires, that we can move the moon—scares people. What else can be tampered with? If a photo isn’t the exact truth at that moment, then what is?

Nothing and everything. My brain sees color more vividly than your brain, maybe, and my camera’s white balance isn’t always perfect. And my lens distorts straight edges. My vision is wider than my camera’s. Editing will always be necessary. What writer of merit doesn’t craft his words? What newspaper editor doesn’t put his mark on a writer’s copy? Why should we expect less from photographers and art directors?

Sure—some people want to know where we draw the line. More important, where do we erase it? And why must there be hard and fast rules in the editing of a photograph? I’m not suggesting our photographs be lies. But editing—cropping, straightening, and even erasing an extraneous power line—does not change the truth into a lie.

We all have our causes. I would never tell a defender of animal rights that he ought to be working for human rights. But I do wonder about those supporters of truth in photography. Why aren’t they as riled up when it comes to the alteration of portraits? Where’s the truth in the Sports Illustrated centerfold or the Time Magazine cover? Every model you see is airbrushed to the point of plasticity. And if the subject is a detestable figure, every flaw and blemish is highlighted.

Which does more harm—a team prayer minus some distracting legs or flawless models against which our young girls will compare themselves? Who will develop an eating disorder from seeing the moon the way I saw it on that October evening in Maryland?‡

*This is not the essay about the moon. This is the essay about the essay about the moon.

†Not everything Detrich has done would pass my muster. Adding a basketball where one had just been isn’t acceptable in a newspaper, where, if you miss the shot, you miss it. In art, it’s fine.

‡I wouldn’t necessarily use my sunset with moon in a nonfiction newspaper story, but the edited photograph of the mime should be perfectly acceptable!

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  1. patrick October 7, 2008 at 3:36 pm #

    I agree with you that a news photographer has the right to edit unwanted, distracting or unnecessary details. Your point about black-and-white photographs in newspapers is spot on. If cost (of colour printing) can be allowed to alter "reality," then what's so wrong with getting rid of peripheral, non-contextual artifacts?

    Had the photograph been of a newsworthy event — as opposed to a human interest-type moment — I could have understood the paper's stance. Clearly, it wasn't. It's my guess that the paper was embarrassed when the difference between Detrich's photo and those taken by the other photographers was, um, exposed.

    By the way, as a Toledoan and as a former carrier of the paper, I can tell you that the newspaper is actually called The Blade, not the Toledo Blade. While its online URL is http://toledoblade.com, the paper itself is The Blade.

    Just sayin’…

  2. steven parke October 7, 2008 at 8:04 pm #

    It’s ALWAYS manipulated to some degree. Either in the darkroom or on the settings of your digital camera. Even the most boring neutral was believed to be neutral by someone’s eye. Look at Ansel Adams, he burned and dodged the hell out of his stuff. Take a picture of what you see- it never really looks like what you see. The point is to bring your eye and felling to the table, unless you are documenting or a photojournalist. Even then- as is the case with many Civil War photojournalists- you may find the truth was altered slightly before the shot was taken. Besides there is THE TRUTH, and then there is what you see and accept as the truth. Often the first one can only be witnesses by a handful of people. The second is them telling the same story in 40 different ways leading to the second part – what you are willing to believe.
    Sure, I believe people should know when they are being deceived. But I can live with a photo that has an element added to make it more attractive. It’s all the other deception that bothers me.

  3. Keri October 7, 2008 at 8:49 pm #

    fascinating post, Leslie. And you gave me something new to think about… “And if the subject is a detestable figure, every flaw and blemish is highlighted.” I never imagined. 🙁

  4. Jane October 8, 2008 at 5:54 pm #

    Awesome work, as always, but I’m really just here to say HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!


  5. mary October 9, 2008 at 3:22 pm #

    I agree that we spend too much time pretending there are hard and fast rules and then arguing about the rules. If there’s anything to argue about, then the rule must not be as clear as we thought.

    My feeling though is that if a photo is altered in a way that the average reader could notice (like removing a background object that’s present in every other photo of the same scene) then even though it’s basically harmless, it can raise questions in the reader’s mind about the credibility of that photographer and, by association, the publication running the photo.

    It’s definitely a slippery slope or however you want to put it, but I think news outlets need to hold themselves to a high standard in order to maintain credibility.

    And yeah, I liked David Sedaris a lot more before I found out the rather large extent of the exaggeration in his essays.

  6. Ashley October 10, 2008 at 10:28 am #

    Great post, Leslie. Something I hadn’t really thought about but leaves me sitting here a little jealous because I don’t know how to alter my pictures! 🙂

  7. Richard Gilbert October 27, 2008 at 12:25 am #

    Great post, Leslie. I am not sure where I am yet, but:

    The thing that has always struck me about the photo issue about the legs is that if you’d been there, those legs would NEVER have been something you’d have seen; your attention would have been focused on the kneeling players. A camera does not select the way we do, so the photographer surely thought he was making the photo TRUER.

    I don’t think our ethics have sorted out the equivalent of a writer making notes on something he decides to leave out of the story. But when photographers edit, other than cropping, everything extraneous must be there . . .


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