Manipulated images in public relations photography

In light of recent sackings of photographers by newspapers and news agencies who have been caught manipulating photos, how does this impact the world of public relations photography?

Clearly it is important for news gathering organisations to publish accurate news and a photo is seen as stronger evidence to prove a story than words. The rule must be that the photo reflects the reality of what was in front of the photographer's camera at the time of shooting the image.

The test of whether this rule applies to photography commissioned by a public relations or marketing department has to be defined by how the image is going to be used. If it is going to support and illustrate facts issued in a ‘news’ release, then the rule must apply.

Of course the PR has a tightrope to walk. The client is expecting their ‘news’ to appear in various publications and with a little image manipulation to ‘accentuate’ certain features in the supporting news release photograph, the picture may stand a stronger chance of being used. However, the PR puts themselves at risk of losing the trust of their carefully cultivated journalist contacts should the truth come out.

Photographers have always manipulated their images to some extent. The ancient skill of dodging and burning areas of a photo under an enlarger was a valued and a necessary one to balance out the shadows and highlights that film was not capable of recording to make the resulting photo a more accurate rendition of what a pair of eyes would have seen at the same moment. The digital equivalent is acceptable and necessary.

In Photoshop it is very easy to remove or clone parts of the image. When editing a photo of a person for example, we think it is entirely acceptable to remove temporary blemishes like spots and shaving cuts and are often asked and expected to do so. Again this is entirely acceptable in my view. Unless the photo is being used to illustrate the effectiveness of a new spot removal technique, in which case ‘the rule’ would obviously apply.

Let me give a more difficult example. A photographer is briefed to shoot a new car being handed over to a customer but where the shot has been taken there are wet patches on the ground just in front of the car which post-shoot look like pools of oil. Is it acceptable to remove them so it doesn’t look like the new model of car is leaking oil everywhere?

What would you tell the photographer to do? What is more important, the accurate representation of the original scene and not breaking the ‘rule’ or protecting your client’s reputation? (We would of course expect our photographer to have noticed the wet patches at the time of the shoot and taken the shot differently or moved the car.)

Given the latest sackings, the balance for a news agency or staff newspaper photographer covering your photo call will be far more towards gaining an entirely accurate shot than making your client look good. As PR photographers, we work with the public relations company to maintain a balance of showing the client in a good light but also in providing photos that accurately represent the scene.

The media must be able to trust in the truthfulness of what the PR feeds them and even more so the photos attached to ‘news’ releases. The PR photographer has a duty to provide newsworthy, accurate and truthful images.