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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