Thoughts on history, photojournalism and photo manipulation

Earlier this year, the news about the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) altering a photograph used to promote an exhibition, left me puzzled and incredibly disappointed. I couldn’t stop thinking about their reasoning, and its implications – still relevant today, as the world questions what to trust. Here is an article I wrote about it, published in Medium by the News Literacy Project.

The commotion was about a photograph of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington taken by Getty Images’ Mario Tama. It was enlarged and installed at the entrance to the “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote” exhibition, showing a sea of marchers with their protest signs. Here’s where things get hinky: the National Archives staff altered the photograph to remove the president’s name along with all readable references to women’s genitalia, from some of the signs.

As explained by Washington Post reporter Joe Heim, who spotted an issue with the photo while at NARA for an unrelated story, the decision to alter the photograph was made to avoid causing offense or being perceived as making a political statement. But by doing so, NARA catapulted the issue into the spotlight as a symbol of erasure, an obstruction of a view of history, and a violation of the ethical standards of photojournalism.

As a documentary photographer, I believe a photograph can stand as evidence of a particular moment. It is a visual record and, like written news, and is part of journalism’s role as the “first rough draft of history.” Context matters and ethics apply. Visual journalists and documentary photographers work hard to provide the full story, precisely caption what is happening and provide as much context as possible. We are accountable and responsible for accurately representing the world around us.

Censoring signs from a women’s march, to promote an exhibition celebrating a century of women speaking up? Interesting choice to say the least. But regardless of content, I keep coming back to visual and news literacy issues and the critical importance of standards-based journalism.

We move through our lives informed by vastly diverse backgrounds, but strive to recognize and set aside personal biases, holding fast to a set of standards and ethics. As Nicole Frugé, director of photography at the San Francisco Chronicle, said at a recent News Literacy Project #NewsLitCamp, “Captions are journalism.” Photojournalism is journalism.

The National Press Photographers Association’s reinforces this view by explaining that our chosen medium “can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated.” In addition to mentioning accuracy, respect, avoiding one’s own biases and treating all subjects with respect and dignity, the Code of Ethics also states that “editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context.”

Another issue to consider is NARA’s intent. Were their actions an act of censorship? What are the implications, especially for a government institution charged with preserving historical documents?

In a Jan. 18 statement, NARA noted it did not hold the photo as one of its archival records but had licensed it from Getty Images to use as a promotional graphic. If the photo were on a different wall, NARA’s policies would have prohibited censorship. Getty’s policy states that it will never censor its editorial coverage, and that “post-editorial licensing of photos will be in accordance with news-industry standards.”

The Washington Post reported that Getty Images was still determining whether it had approved the alterations. We can look at documentary photographs as a slice of history, but NARA says it did not consider this image a “historical document” and it was treated differently than a photograph from its collection.

The purpose of this photo was absolved from the constraints of photojournalistic ethics as well as the ethics of archivists, historians and librarians. Did anyone from NARA pause to ask whether this action would tarnish the values it seeks to uphold? Its justification for altering the photo may have done little to erase damage to its reputation. It makes us wonder — are there more altered images or documents?

Could NARA have chosen another photograph to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage, perhaps one from its own holdings? I would imagine so, as it has some 25 million photographs and graphics, thousands of which are digitized and searchable on its website, Museum exhibitions take months — sometimes years to curate — and a centennial shouldn’t be a surprise. It is likely there were multiple opportunities to select a photo that wouldn’t raise concerns of being partisan or too graphic for younger audiences.

To its credit, once the backlash began, the first words in an explanatory tweet from the official NARA Twitter account @USNatArchives were, “We made a mistake.” NARA also stated in its Jan. 18 press release that it has always been “completely committed to preserving our archival holdings, without alteration” and reiterated that the altered photo was not among those holdings — a small relief. But how can you be “completely committed” to accuracy when something like this happens? With a mandate to “be a transparent, truthful guardian of our nation’s history” as pointed out in a Forbes article by Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, these values are part of enriching and preserving our democracy.

While perhaps not enough for some, NARA removed the image, leaving in its place a statement about the incident until an unaltered version of the photograph took its place. Three cheers to journalists everywhere (print, digital or visual), for uncovering stories that hold people accountable and for ensuring that first rough draft of history is accurate.

In case you missed the controversy and want more details, here are a few of the articles: