A picture may be worth a thousand words, but some of those words might be fictional.
Manipulating photographs is certainly nothing new; doctoring images has been common since the invention of the medium. Photoshop and similar software products have only made such tweaks easier to perform and harder to detect. With such tools readily available, it is tempting to change images to capture what we wanted to be, rather than what actually was.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office succumbed to the temptation earlier this month when it sent a Photoshopped portrait of female lawmakers to the press.
There was no effort on Pelosi’s part to deceive anyone. Her spokesman Drew Hammill alerted news outlets by email that four of the legislators in the photo arrived late and were added digitally to the photograph after the fact. Pelosi later defended the choice to release the altered image, saying, “It was an accurate historical record of who the Democratic women of Congress are.” Notwithstanding, most news outlets, including all major ones, chose not to use the doctored photograph.
News is sometimes described as the first draft of history. History is something that actually happened, not something that might have happened if everyone had been on time for a photo op. The Associated Press takes an appropriate journalistic position in its Values and Principles statement: “AP pictures must always tell the truth. We do not alter or digitally manipulate the content of a photograph in any way.” Other news outlets have similar policies.
The photo Pelosi’s office released is something more in the vein of a portrait. It is a representation in which artistic license has been taken to present the subject as it might have wished to be seen, rather than as it actually was. When we look at oil paintings of historical figures, we know the artist probably eliminated warts and wrinkles, made eyes and jewelry sparkle more than was actually the case, and may have inserted a beautiful background or a gallant steed that existed only in the artist’s imagination.
Likewise, photographers today often offer retouching for formal school photos and wedding portraits, and airbrushing is standard practice on magazine covers and in advertising. Images that reflect an ideal rather than reality appear many places; major news outlets, however, should not be among them.
My concern about the Pelosi version of the photo is that the disclaimer about its origins is not self-evident. In the years to come, the press release that included that disclaimer is likely to be forgotten, while the false image remains. Pelosi was honest with her contemporaries but less so with future generations. Yes, the four women in the back row of the photo are indeed Democratic women of the current House of Representatives. No, they were not present when the photograph was shot.
It would have been more honest to include the four latecomers in another way - perhaps as headshots incorporated separately within the frame of the image, or in a second panel that could have contained the lawmakers’ names and a brief explanation of the circumstances.
There’s no sense getting overly excited about openly airbrushed photos in an era when many of the images we see every day are carefully staged, even if they depict events that were literally real. Campaign rallies, protest demonstrations, presidential addresses and televised “reality” shows all lack spontaneity and authenticity. We know, and we don't care - and because we know, I don’t believe it’s wrong. It is like going to the movies: We collaborate in the suspension of our own disbelief. Nobody is being deceived.
So if people want to see all the Democratic women in the House gathered on the Capitol steps, let them have their image, even if it never really happened. Just don’t present it as news.