Is the more than 100-year-old profession of photojournalism going to be destroyed in just a few short weeks?
David D. Perlmutter, journalism professor and author of "Visions of War, Photojournalism and Foreign Policy," writes in Editor and Publisher that he is alarmed by what is happening to his beloved profession.
In twenty years of researching and teaching about the art and trade and doing photo-documentary work, I have never witnessed or heard of such a wave of attacks on the people who take news pictures and on the basic premise that nonfiction news photo- and videography is possible.
Perlmutter doesn't exactly know what's happening.
I'm not sure, however, if the craft I love is being murdered, committing suicide, or both.
Who is leading the charge against photojournalism, a "vandal army," is also puzzling to him.
Perhaps it would be more reassuring if the enemy at the gates was a familiar one—politicians, or maybe radio talk show hosts. But the photojournalist standing on the crumbling ramparts of her once proud citadel now sees the vandal army charging for the sack led by “zombietime,” “The Jawa Report,” “Powerline,” “Little Green Footballs,” “confederateyankee,” and many others.
In each case, these bloggers have engaged in the kind of probing, contextual, fact-based (if occasionally speculative) media criticism I have always asked of my students. And the results have been devastating: news photos and video shown to be miscaptioned, radically altered, or staged (and worse, re-staged) for the camera. Surely “green helmet guy,” “double smoke,” “the missiles that were actually flares,” “the wedding mannequin from nowhere,” the “magical burning Koran,” the “little girl who actually fell off a swing” and “keep filming!” will now enter the pantheon of shame of photojournalism.
Media organizations have been behaving like stonewalling government officials with things to hide.
It does not help that certain news organizations have acted like government officials or corporate officers trying to squash a scandal. The visual historian in me revolts when an ABC producer informs me that Reuters “deleted all 920 images” by the stringer who produced the “Beirut double smoke” image and is “less than willing to talk about it.” Can you say “18-minute gap,” anyone?
Incredibly, Perlmutter says that today's photo-manipulation is less than in the past.
From a historical perspective, this is the golden age of photojournalistic ethics. In previous eras wild retouching, rearranging, cutting of images and even staging and restaging of events for the camera were commonly accepted in the trade. As someone who has written a history of images of war, I can testify there is more honesty in war photography today than ever in the past in any medium or any war--but there is, of course, much more scrutiny as well.
News picture-making media organizations have two paths of possible response to this unnerving new situation. First, they can stonewall, deny, delete, dismiss, counter-slur, or ignore the problem. To some extent, this is what is happening now and, ethical consideration aside, such a strategy is the practical equivalent of taking extra photos of the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The second, much more painful option, is to implement your ideals, the ones we still teach in journalism school. Admit mistakes right away. Correct them with as much fanfare and surface area as you devoted to the original image. Create task forces and investigating panels. Don’t delete archives but publish them along with detailed descriptions of what went wrong. Attend to your critics and diversify the sources of imagery, or better yet be brave enough to refuse to show any images of scenes in which you are being told what to show. I would even love to see special inserts or mini-documentaries on how to spot photo bias or photo fakery—in other words, be as transparent, unarrogant, and responsive as you expect those you cover to be.