Christianity, Ethics, and Manipulation

Photo manipulation has always been a part of photography. From the earliest Daguerreotype to now Photoshop CS6, photographers have enjoyed experimenting and tinkering with their works. But it appears we may have forgotten something along the way. Historically, we could rely upon photojournalism to speak the truth. They were moments in time, forever frozen and subject to scrutiny. But now it appears we may never know what is real. As reported by Motherboard earlier this month, researchers at Carnegie Mellon and University of California Berkeley have changed everything. They have created software that now allows for 3D manipulations. Not only does the software have access to a plethora of images of the object you want to manipulate, it will correct lighting, texture and shape. This technology will certainly change the face of photo editing as now you may do virtually whatever you want in a photograph.

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It appears we may have forgotten a little thing called ethics. Ethics are a “set of moral principles of values” which “conform to accepted professional standards of conduct.”

The official NPPA logo.
The official NPPA logo.

While one person’s ethics of photo editing may differ from another, they must conform to the accepted professional standards of conduct. There’s no better place to find a standard of conduct than the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). With just over 10,000 members the NPPA has a code of ethics, which all members must abide by. Number 6 is especially important: “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.”

Bill Parker, former Associate Managing Editor for Photography for the Chicago Tribune, once said that, “The question is where enhancement ends and distortion begins.” With the announcement of the 3D manipulation technology, “distortion” may be where photographers begin to “enhance.”

Bill Nighy in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." Photo credit to:
Bill Nighy in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.” Photo credit to:

Certainly one could look to films as a prime example of manipulation. The difference, however, between photography and film is the intent. Intent is everything. One could look at fictional films and think the intent could be the telling of a story. But behind the story there could be the intent of an idea or message wished to be communicated by the story. Those messages or ideas could range from anti-war to pro-capitalism. Behind every good story there is intent of a message.

Can the same be true for photographs? To an extent I believe. For instance, reliable photojournalists, adhering to the ethical standards of the NPPA, have the intent of presenting the truth with their photographs. On the other hand, photographers who do not adhere the NPPA standards will find themselves not only manipulating images, but also manipulating reality for it to fit with their perception of it. Certainly there can be a distinction between what is considered “art” and “historical.” But there is a certain importance to not mistaking them.

What should Christians do in a culture of photo manipulation? If they indeed adhere to traditional Christianity, one must seek first the idea of “all truth is God’s truth.” But one must not stop there. Even the demons understand this concept. What makes us as Christians different than them? We believe that “all truth exists to display more of God and awaken more love for God.

In this pursuit, as we take photographs or shoot video, our intent should never be to hide the truth; for in this we find that the truth displays more of God and will awaken more love for God in our onlookers. Portraits of individuals are snapshots of creation Imago Dei, “In the image of God.” Would that mean that manipulation of such images are manipulations of our Creator?

Our friend Bill Parker makes a valid point. There is a line between “enhancements” and “distortions” which must be drawn. Enhancements can make colors pop or call attention to certain aspects of a photograph. But when do “enhancements” and “distortions” blur and become one and the same? How can we tell the difference? These are the types of questions that can keep one up, tossing to and fro, during the night. As one author asserts, “A photo is certainly a powerful medium and its message lies in the hands of the photographer. The question that remains is if photographers acknowledge the responsibility that comes with the practice of their skill and profession.”

As a Christian, one thing must always be kept in mind,

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” – 1 Corinthians 10:31


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