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If you Mac it, mark it!

On October 3, the NUJ's 1996 Annual Delegate Meeting (ADM) decided to launch a campaign to ensure that every time a digitally-manipulated photo is used in a newspaper or magazine, a little symbol must appear within the picture. The union will start by using such a symbol in its own publications.

On 26 February 1998, ADM amended the NUJ's Code of Conduct to include:

No journalist shall knowingly cause or allow the publication or broadcast of a photograph that has been manipulated unless that photograph is clearly labelled as such. Manipulation does not include normal dodging, burning, colour balancing, spotting, contrast adjustment, cropping and obvious masking for legal or safety reasons.

London Freelance Branch also plans to produce a trial sticker for photographers to use to indicate that their photos are real and not manipulated.

What’s wrong with this picture?

[A photo of Prince Charles with some vegetables]

Not as much as there was

THIS ISN'T A PHOTO. It's a photo-illustration, produced by digital manipulation of two separate photos.

Prince Charles has never met the vegetables in question, to talk to or otherwise. He has been "Macced into" a separate photo.

Past photo-manipulation jobs by the late newspaper Today have barely met National Inquirer standards. This one is a decent job -- even the practised eye could be taken in.

Is that a problem for an illustration to a patently silly feature? Maybe, maybe not: the subject has been too busy to tell us personally, but his office has indicated that it is not amused at all....

The words "wedge", "end" and "thin" come to mind. Today has run at least one blatantly manipulated image on the front page, and at least this subtly manipulated image with a feature.

How long would it be, we asked at the time, before some UK paper presented an undetectably faked image as a news photo? Time already did it by "blackening"OJ on its cover.

Then, on cue, the London (UK) Evening Standard ran a photo of the Labour Party Member of Parliament John Prescott, with a beer bottle removed to justify the caption "Champage socialist". This may seem trivial -- but it's the first clearly party-political abuse of photo-manipulation in the UK.

If the credibility of news photography is to be maintained, then manipulated "non-photos" must be marked as such. Ideally, LFB at least believes this should be done with an internationally recognised symbol.

Bodies like the US National Press Photographers' Association say they "are strongly opposed to any manipulation of hard news pictures, so we haven't had [the] problem." But manipulated photos will and probably should be used as illustrations to features. The US Michigan Press Photographers' Association has had an extensive on-line discussion.

There are many issues to be debated. What, exactly, constitutes manipulation, many photographers ask? Fortunately, a very clear set of guidelines has emerged, from a perhaps unexpected and certainly (in this context) indepedent source.

In what kinds of publications is there a risk of photos being confused with news? The Timeses, certainly. The Suns... well, they still say they're newspapers: yes. But what about Vogue?

It's time to get some symbol into daily use in all the places where it's clearly needed. The NUJ is trying out symbols in its publications.

What are you doing?

BY Mike Holderness

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Last modified: 25 Feb 2004
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