Ethics and Images

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I recently had the pleasure of attending the IABC Eurocomm Conference. This is one of my favourite events because it gathers a variety of communicators from across Europe and the Middle East (and beyond) to share expertise, views and cocktails. It reflects cultural, geographical and functional diversity, so it appeals to the Jack-of-many-trades in me. One of the things I loved about this year’s edition was its emphasis on innovation, and the sessions that talked about non-verbal communications.

One of these was a fascinating discussion, led by Suzanne Salvo, on the ethics of communicating through images, particularly in an age when photo manipulation has become so easy.

It would be impossible for me to summarize the discussion, but I’ll try to provide a few highlights that others might find as stimulating and challenging as I did.

1) All images are a manipulation of the truth because of the choices made as to what they contain and what they exclude. This was as true in the age of propagandistic paintings of leaders as it is in the age of digital retouching.

2) Where are the ethical lines when it comes to posing photographs? I have a friend who is a photojournalist, among other things. She told me about a recent trip to Chernobyl to report on the anniversary of the accident there. She was struck by evidence she saw of the passage of previous photographers, including scenes that had to have been posed, like a child’s doll on a chair in a particularly evocative scene. It didn’t necessarily represent “reality”, but it conveyed a desired message.

One example put forward by Suzanne involved a 19th century photographer of the American Civil War, who was highly acclaimed until someone noticed that the same corpse appeared in many different photos taken at different battles sites.  Turns out, it was his friend and assistant, who added a little drama to the scene. Apparently they also moved the corpses around to improve the composition of the images.

Where is the line between ethical and unethical posing? (The group seemed to think that the line revolved around whether the image was presented as hard news or as an illustration, which has an artistic vocation.)

3) How ethical is it to change people’s appearance?  After all, appearance provides a clue to well-being, which could impact the fitness of a leader for office. Does it matter if the changes are made before the photo is taken (e.g. makeup, hair, wardrobe, modifying the environment in which they are filmed) or afterwards (reducing the ruddiness of cheeks on an executive known to enjoy a three-martini lunch)?  Again, there were no black-and-white answers. Participants felt that context and intent were vital in determining the right thing to do.

4) What about choices of photographs and how they are reproduced? The example shown by Suzanne to kick off this debate was an identical photograph of OJ Simpson run on two magazine covers during his trial. One of the photos was inked very heavily so that Mr. Simpson looked scary and menacing. This kicked off a lively discussion about how often the media seem to choose an unflattering picture of certain individuals on purpose.

5) Ironically, the magazine cover with the scary OJ picture had the more sympathetic title, which triggered comments about the relationship between images, words and other elements of the composition. (Faithful readers of The Economist will be familiar with their use of images to make ironic commentaries on news stories.)

All in all, the session sensitized me to the complicated ethical questions around the use of images, many of which I had never considered previously. Most of the discussions I’ve seen about ethics look at our use of words, and I thought this was a very stimulating discussion, especially given the power of images, which can be absorbed so quickly, compared to words.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Earlier today I was reading an article in Toronto Life, one of the great magazines in Canada, written by an exc ellent writer, DAvid Hayes, about the turmoil at Chatelaine magazine, which has been churning through editors.

    One of the comments by the editorial director responsible for many of the company’s magazines was that the magazine no longer retouched any front cover photograph, other than (I’m trying to rememeber the word, but this is really close if not precisely it) “temporary” elements, such as a pimple.

    As for picking unflattering shots from a multiple-picture session. I see this all too often, and beli8eve that more often than not the cover fails, and it fails becasue an i9gnorant, juvenile, out of touch but highly self-centered art director had too much power.

    Any discussion about photographic ethics at an IABC event should have included an analysis of the use of crappy stock photgraphy, as chosen by the IABC “brain tgrust” (using the phrase loosely) forIABC’s own projects. Any readers of PR COnversations can go vist http://www.IABC.com and note the great portraits ont he opening page, including real names of real people, and then look throughout the site for even one real photo of real people, other than on the biog page.

    The great shots on the opening page are, by the way, the work of Chris Salvo, the other half of Salvo Photography.

    BAK

  2. Hi Brian,

    I agree that there’s a gap between the great member photos and the stock photograph elsewhere. But is that a question of ethics or simply effectiveness?

    When we had the discussion at Eurocomm, people were pretty clear on when touch-ups were ethical (as you say, for ephemeral elements that don’t represent the general reality), but one intriguing question is whether the ethics change when you make the adjustment before the photo is shot — whether it’s through makeup, clothes or changing the environment around the subject.

    An example given was the case of whether it’s ethical to correct a safety infraction in the background of a compay picture taken on the shop floor simply to avoid its being seen in the phhotograph. I think the example was of an oil stain on the floor or something like that. Most agreed it would be unethical to doctor the photo afterward, but what about to paint the floor? Would it make a difference if the photo were a portrait for the annual report or being submitted to an investigation into safety practices at that site? Lots of food for thought.

  3. Regarding >But is that a question of ethics or simply effectiveness?<

    Considering that IABNC extractgs around three hundred bucks, in various currencies, from thousands of peole, and considerring it is representing the communications business, and the people in it, failure to be effective is unethical.

    People should be fired, but the members don’t care and the executive just like the free trips.

    Compare the performance of the top elected person over the past better part of a year with his promises made when he assumed office.

    Said promises are in the IABC Cafe, which is a joke itself.

    IABC, of course, pretends to be an organization representing the members but is, in truth, just another traning company like Ragan and Melcrum, except it is financed by the members, selling courses and books and training and an expen sive conference or two or three or more.

    BAK

  4. Brian,

    I have to disagree with you. IABC, like every organization, has a limited pool of resources, which requires choices to be made. In this case, the choice would imply investing more money in illustrations, to the detriment of other functions. That choice could be justified if the added value to members exceeded the costs involved. When it comes to illustrating a page on the Research Foundation, for example, I don’t see what the added value custom pictures would have, other than being “nicer”. For me, it would be unethical to waste money on frivolous photographs that could be better spent on content development.

    For me, the most important aspect of the IABC value proposition is the network, and this is borne out by any survey I’ve ever seen in my chapter/region. Although people enjoy the professional development sessions put on by the Association, the top reason they join is to exchange with the other members. This makes it very different from the other organizations you cite.

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