Features photo
Paul Hansen

With the recent controversy surrounding this year’s World Press Photo award winner, the photographic community has once again been engaged in a familiar argument. Has the image been subject to too much manipulation? And just how much is too much anyway? Author and NYU professor, Fred Ritchin has been a part of this conversation for decades, founding Pixel Press along the way.

Over the course of his career — which includes a stint as the pictures editor for the New York Times Magazine — he has proposed several solutions for this increasingly common problem, some of which are outlined in his book, _After Photography. In 1994, Ritchin penned a proposal for a “not a lens” icon that could be affixed to published images that had been digitally manipulated. Now, he has developed a system called the Four Corners, which would give photographers much more control and a greater sense of authorship over their own images while letting viewers know the extent to which they have been edited. We discussed his proposals as well as his general outlook on the photographic community in a recent phone call._

Fred’s new book: Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen is currently available for pre-order.

Have you been following the controversy surrounding this year’s World Press Photo award winner?
I have read about it. Eight years ago I gave a keynote speech to the World Press and I asked them about putting together a committee of people to establish standards. They have so much importance in the world as an organization and somebody has to set the standard. A group of people needs to sit around for a few days to figure out what’s OK and what’s not OK. What do you do about it if someone is pushing the boundaries one way or another?

This likely seems like a very familiar conversation to you, then.
Photoshop has been around since 1989. 25 years. It’s a long time not to have addressed this issue.

The photographic community has done very little to preserve the credibility of the image. My sense is that the photograph is a quotation from appearances. It’s supposed to be a recording, if you’re using it journalistically. If you’re not doing that, the reader needs to know. Just like if you’re quoting someone and you put it in quotation marks, that’s what they said. If you want to paraphrase, you don’t use quotation marks so the reader knows the difference. With a photograph, the reader assumes it’s a quotation and if it’s not, you have to tell them. If you don’t do it, it’s illegitimate in terms of journalism. You can manipulate all you want, but just let people know you’re doing it.

So you’re not entirely against editing images?
A certain amount of darkening of skies or what have you has always been permitted. It’s just like when you’re getting a quote from someone who’s talking and they go “um, um, um” we know that we take those out. There are certain things that are allowed in words and it should be the same for pictures. To me, the problem is not the fact that you retouch, but that you don’t tell people that you have done it. That information isn’t available.

Almost two decades ago, you proposed the “not a lens” icon to indicate when an image has been manipulated. Can you expand a little on that project?
It was a simple icon that would indicate whether or not a photograph had been manipulated [You can read more about the icon in this essay on the PixelPress site: New Standards For Photographic Reproduction In The Media].

Where did the icon come from?

not a lens

We thought about what it is that makes a photograph a photograph and we figured it was the lens. It’s not the camera body. It’s the lens that people trust. If it’s not a lens, that means there’s significant manipulation. That would be like a copyright symbol. Online, you’d be able to click on it and find out how it had been manipulated.

Previously, in another attempt to create a labeling system we had suggested that there might be six categories of imagery: modifications could be explained to the reader in more detail when necessary:

Standard photograph: Reserved for instances that are more spontaneous without being setup
Photo opportunity: Staged by the subject
Photo illustration: Staged by the photographer
Composited photograph: Created from multiple images
Retouched photograph: Single image with local edits
Computer generated image: Synthetic image just made from polygons

It ultimately wasn’t adopted but how much traction did it gain?
Individuals and organizations have adopted some of the methods, but there are some who think it’s not necessary or it’s too late. Many picture editors don’t think they need it because they know what is right and wrong for the reader. I still believe the reader deserves to know if an image has been manipulated in a major way. I’m not against publishing them, I’m just against publishing them without letting the reader know that major manipulation has happened.

Your most recent solution is the Four Corners. Can you explain how it works?
The idea is that there are four dots at the corners of an image with embedded information that would travel with the image, so even if someone else published it and gave it their own caption, the reader would still be able to see what the photographer contextualized and thought about the image. That includes whether it was manipulated or not.

What would each corner represent?

Bottom right corner: Photographed by and the copyright info as well as a basic caption and whether it’s been manipulated.
Bottom left: The bigger context. The photographer can apply a backstory
Upper Left: The possibility of including other images or videos. It could be photographs from earlier or later in the sequence.
Upper Right: Linking to other websites that might be helpful. If it’s a battle in Syria, it might be a website that gives a timeline about the fighting in Syria.

How would you go about attaching something like that to images? You need a uniform platform
You can do it now with platforms like Stipple, but it’s mostly being used for commercial reasons. You’ll have a picture of a couch and you can roll over it and buy the couch. The technology is available, it’s just not being used.

Do you think some of the pushback on a system like this is the extra time commitment required to add the information to the image?
You may not want to use all four corners all the time. If you’re coming back with 250 images, that may take a tremendous amount of time. But, maybe you want to use the bottom right corner every time to identify the copyright and any manipulation.

Do you think people have become generally distrusting of images they see because of all these controversies?
I think the assumption now is that much less is real in any photograph. There’s a tremendous amount of manipulation going on and people are very skeptical. An example I use in this new book I’ve just written, is when Osama Bin Laden was killed, which is a guy they were hunting for a decade, the White House wouldn’t release photographs in part because they didn’t want to inflame people who may sympathies. But it was also in part because people wouldn’t believe it anyway. They would say “It might have just been photoshopped.” If you put an icon on it and say how it was or it wasn’t, it goes a long way to lending the image credibility. The icon or whatever it may be would say “You know, you’re right, we did change something here, and we made the sky green when it used to be blue.” The reader needs to know what the standards are. If we in the community don’t even know what the standards are, how is the reader going to know and how are they going to trust anything?

Do you think a system like this shifts the role of the photographer in the storytelling process?
Absolutely. The photographer can say, “Look, I photographed this thing at 4:15 in the afternoon and at 4:22 there was nobody in the square because a bomb went off.” That’s interesting. What’s the backstory? What’s going on? If a photographer says, “I photographed the president of the United States standing next to a factory worker but he only met the guy three minutes before,” he can put that as the backstory and the reader appreciates it. The photographers can protect the integrity of their process.

At the same time, do you think it will affect the way people view images?
I was working at Time Magazine 30 years ago doing their Pictures of the Year and there was this image of the Polish pope who went to Auschwitz for the first time. The picture they were running was him kneeling at the Eternal Flame. That was a big deal for a Polish pope. I was very moved by the picture. Then I saw the outtakes. There were like 40 journalists a few meters away photographing it. I started wondering if he was doing it sincerely or if it had become a photo opp. It became a very different way to read the image. As an editor, I saw all these outtakes that the readers never get to see and I think they would be very helpful for helping them read the image. Photographers need to be able to contextualize their own images. You treat the readers as an adult.

[Editor’s note: transcript has been edited and re-ordered for clarity and readability]