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Ethics Committee

What Happens When We Manipulate Images
By Kennan Ward

Although the issue of image manipulation brings up questions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, it is not religious in nature. I am not against captive animal or manipulated (computer-enhanced) photography per se. Rather, the question lies in disclosure: how the photograph is presented to the public. In the past there has been an assumed truth to photographic imagery. The limited amount of manipulation possible made it easy for people to believe that what they were seeing was an accurate record of real events. This basic attitude is still prevalent today, but the development of digital image manipulation has given the public good reason to doubt the inherent truth of photography. In nature photography, people want to believe that the image they are seeing is a glimpse into the natural world. If what is being presented is unnatural (captive animals or manipulated scenery) it ought to be labeled as such or leave itself open to criticisms of deception. Photography as a means of natural history communication has been invaluable. If it is to continue to play this role it must be presented honestly.

People now routinely ask me, "Is this photograph real?" This shows how much things have changed. Not long ago the usual question was, "How did you get this picture?" There was an interest in what went on behind the scenes, the thousand words that make up the picture. I am proud to describe field adventures lasting weeks or months in which I was finally able to observe or photograph something magical in the natural world. Often these stories turn from photography to survival in the wilderness. On a morning when the sunrise is glowing crimson red, I wonder how a photographer could miss such an opportunity. Nature is far more creative than anything I could imagine! The photographs I make at such times are the truths of my life and as I look at them I feel thankful that I was able to see nature in its prime. Nature at its purest is sometimes unbelievable. How could I improve upon it?

Ironically, many of my assignment projects have been requests for animals in captive or controlled situations. Magazines want immediate results. It has been less than fulfilling work, but as a surviving nature photographer, I am lucky to get the work for a few days. It is a tough business, isn't it? These new images became a crossroad and a challenge to my hard-found, real photos. So in the early 1990's I developed a series of icons labeling my work as "Truth in Photography." The majority of my work is labeled "Wild Animal" and "Authentic Photograph," with the rare exception being "Captive" or the nearly extinct "Enhanced Photograph".

I am the first to admit that the lines of authentic photography are difficult to judge. How often have you seen a favorite photograph of yours reproduced in a magazine with odd colors? I have had a Polar Bear image published on three covers: one was magenta, another was yellow, and the third lacked any color, appearing primarily gray. All were made from the same batch of 70 mm dupes. These shifts are standard and anticipated within the standards of four-color press printing.

But the line becomes clear as images are worked, intensified, and things added to purposely stretch the truth of the original beyond a reasonable doubt. The image then becomes an illustration and should be identified. For the gray area that exists between these examples, I revert to darkroom photography as my ancestral guide. If I was able to dodge, burn or remove flaws on a print in the darkroom then I should reasonably and morally be able to do the same with a computer. We all know Ansel Adams's great photograph of the "Moonrise, Hernandez" was a creative darkroom experiment. Ansel was not afraid to show us how he changed the original. We all agreed it was in good taste and realistic to the light at the time and the limits of the film. I respect my audience and try not to deceive them with unreal images. They want to know the truth. More than any other photographic field, nature photography has suffered from the moral issues surrounding manipulation. Unusual images are dismissed as being altered or enhanced until proved otherwise. What remains at stake is the intent of the photographer.

An adventurer-naturalist, Kennan Ward photographs and writes about wilderness and wildlife. He has dedicated his life to capturing rare forms of nature on film. Whether it be an endangered rhinoceros, a once-in-a-lifetime glance from a grizzly cub, or a split second lightning strike, Kennan continues to explore remote regions of the world to bring back messages of uncommon beauty. His wife Karen travels with him in the field. Since 1986, Karen has significantly contributed to the imagery as a photographer in her own right, as well as assisting with the research and business management of their successful publishing company Wildlight Press, Inc.

Why Not Manipulation
by Ron Sanford

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