Thursday, July 14, 2005

Politics: The Temptation of Photoshop

[via John Cole]

Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields is (rightly) getting raked over the coals for having used a photo doctored to appear more multi-cultural for her campaign materials. [Newsday link] Of course, this isn't the first time this has happened. Last year, a guy running for Governor in NJ used a photo of a Howard Dean rally as a backdrop, superimposing himself in place of Dean, and going so far as to retouch campaign signs and hats in the crowd to read "Shundler" instead of Dean. The Bush/Cheney campaign also Photoshopped-up a crowd shot to increase the military faces in the crowd.

These are three degrees of the same bullshit, and I have a big problem with this because this treads into what I do for a living. I'm a graphic designer, art director, or whatever you want to call it. I work for a college and freelance for many publishers. Part of my job (thanks to computers) now includes photo retouching and image composition. This is different than cleaning up a model's skin or even darkening OJ's. The ad agency people in each of these cases crossed a bright line. (I want to point out that in all three cases, it's likely the candidate had no idea what was going on, but as they say, "the buck stops...")

The Fields photo clearly is intended to depict an event that never happened. She never met with those Chinese faces. Period. This was done solely to misrepresent facts and make her look a certain way to the voting community. The photo is also documentary in nature, yet false. Completely dishonest and unethical, and the worst offense of the three.

Shundler's Dean fiasco is slightly different. It's difficult to tell by the shots I've seen if this is supposed to depict him at the event or merely a collage with an excited crowd as a backdrop. Either way it was fucking stupid to use a Dean photo. If anything, the Deaniacs have shown they pay attention to this stuff, and they were bound to get caught. Either way, it also is intended to portray an enthusiastic crowd that doesn't exist (not for Shundler anyway). Probably a case of an overzealous production artist putting this together, but it should never have been used. When this ad was presened up the chain there was a responsibility to point out it was a composition. Somebody in that agency should have made sure it never left the shop. It was unethical, and also a copyright violation of the original photo.

The Bush shot is an even lesser offense in the technical sense, but only egregious in practice (to me) because of their claim to/of military support. Apparently not enough support to fill the frame... Like Shundler, surely a case of a production artist doctoring the photo (slightly) to fill in the crowd, but in this case, probably never mentioning it to anyone. No real harm no real foul.

As I said, this is what I do for a living. I've worked in agencies. I've done hundreds of magazine covers and ads. I've often had to come up with artwork basically out of thin air. I'm sure at times I've cut corners, but never like this. Big agencies working on big campaigns (political or otherwise) have the budgets to pay for shoots, and/or an obligation to obtain proper permission and give credit to photographers. These were created for wide release and for clients with plenty to lose. It might sound like, to some, that these politicians are throwing somebody else under the bus. They are, and that's fine, because I hold the agency responsible.

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