So Nancy Pelosi, wanting to commemorate the record-breaking 61 female members of the Democratic House Caucus, had the above photos taken. But four women were not present for the photo, and so were Photoshopped into the back row (and rather badly Photoshopped, I might add). Pelosi then posted the photo on her Flickr and (I assume) released it to the press, without explaining that the photo was actually a digital composite.
Jack at Ethics Alarms, with his usual restraint, writes:
A digitally altered photograph that misrepresents an event by inserting individuals who were not present is ethically indistinguishable from the old Soviet Union practice of excising the images of purged officials from official photographs. It is a lie.
What bugs me about Pelosi’s altered photo (other than how poorly done the Photoshop job was) is that the digital alteration wasn’t announced when the photo was posted.
If Pelosi had posted the exact same (altered) photo, accompanied by a caption identifying the four figures that had been inserted digitally, then it would have been fine with me. They wanted an illustration to commemorate their new record, and I don’t see anything wrong with using digital means to make an illustration, as long as there’s full disclosure.
I said so at Jack’s blog, and Jack responded:
I think the deception makes the conduct a lot worse, yes. The digital manipulation still changes the photo from what purports to be a record of what really occurred to something else. You can’t say: and here we have a historic photo of all the women in the house (oh, by the way, the following 17 images–or one–are of people who really weren’t there.) What’s preventing the explanation from being separated from the photo 100 years from now?
Jack’s argument is an argument for never printing or posting any photo, since any photo could be distorted by later reproducers. Let’s say I take a photo of Obama and Romney together at a charity event; what’s to prevent the photo from being cropped to make it seem one wasn’t present, a hundred years from now? Should we therefore not print the photo?
An honest report is an honest report. A digitally altered photograph with full disclosure of how it was made is honest; an unaltered photo is also honest.
Both digitally composed photos and unaltered photos are subject to having their context snipped out by later reproductions. If (as Jack claims) the hypothetical possibility of having important context removed makes a photograph unethical, then it logically must do so for both kinds of photo, not just for digitally altered photos.
Jack also thought that Pelosi’s photo is sexist:
I believe that a gender-segregated photo of female legislators is sexist, prejudicial and hypocritical. Every one of these women would scream if, for example, Republican House members posed for a photo excluding the women in their number.
Many of these women are now in their 60s and 70s, and the near-total exclusion of women from Congress is something they experienced firsthand, and that they themselves have been part of reversing. Nothing wrong with a photo commemorating that achievement.
Since there has, in fact, been no exclusion of men from Congress to be painstakingly overcome, Jack’s “what if they excluded the women from an all-male photo” reversal is idiotic. An all-male photo such as Jack suggests would not commemorate overcoming a prejudice; it would be, if anything, object to that prejudice being overcome. That’s a huge contextual difference.
What next, complaining that if Black people celebrate African-American progress in the last century, that’s racist against White people? Such a complaint would be exactly as groundless and foolish as Jack’s complaint in this post. It would, in fact, be the same complaint.
Finally, descending into right-wing tropes, Jack wrote:
Voters shouldn’t vote on the basis of race and gender, but this is the whole strategy of one major party—tactical divisiveness and one-way bigotry.
Ironically, Jack intended that as a dig at the Democrats, not at the GOP.
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