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.