NYTimes Reminds Freelance Photographers “No Unauthorized Alteration Of Photos”

- - Ethics

I’m not familiar with how assignments are made at the NY Times Magazine, but it looks like this policy is a part of the contract photographers sign when they start working with “The Times.” This memo just went out (presumably in response to the Edgar Martins fiasco) to remind everyone to only submit unaltered images. Except of course portraits, fashion and still life, natch.

Here’s the memo:

TO: ALL FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHERS

This is a reminder of The Times’s policies on digital manipulation or other alteration of photos.

As you know, under the contract you signed for The Times, you warrant that any photo submitted for publication “will be original and unaltered (unless it is a photo illustration, pre-approved by your editor and fully disclosed in caption information materials).”

The Times takes this obligation very seriously; the integrity of photographs and other material we publish goes to the heart of our credibility as a news organization. The prohibition on unauthorized alteration of photos applies to all sections of the paper, the Magazine and the Web site.

This passage from the newsroom’s “Guidelines on Our Integrity” explains our rules in more detail:

Photography and Images. Images in our pages, in the paper or on the Web, that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions). Adjustments of color or gray scale should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction, analogous to the “burning” and “dodging” that formerly took place in darkroom processing of images. Pictures of news situations must not be posed.

In some sections, and in magazines, where a photograph is used to serve the same purposes as a commissioned drawing or painting – as an illustration of an idea or situation or as a demonstration of how a device works, etc. – it must always be clearly labeled as a photo illustration. This does not apply to portraits or still-lifes (photos of food, shoes, etc.), but it does apply to other kinds of shots in which we have artificially arranged people or things, as well as to collages, montages, and photographs that have been digitally altered.

If you have any questions about what is permissible under the rules, please consult the assigning editor.

Sincerely,

[Redacted]
Deputy Managing Editor
The New York Times Newspaper
Division of The New York Times Company

There Are 26 Comments On This Article.

  1. This went out to all of us who have a signed contract with the NYT, whether with the newspaper, like me, or the magazine, I assume because I have not worked with them.
    A friendly reminder I suppose.

    • @Patrick Meredith,
      I think the problem is that altered pictures *are* acceptable as long as it’s a portrait, still life or fashion picture which causes confusion or at least makes you think maybe they’re not hard asses about it.

      • @A Photo Editor,

        Or maybe this is the problem: photos “…will be original and unaltered (unless it is a photo illustration, pre-approved by your editor and fully disclosed in caption information materials)”

        There’s an implicit assumption that the the default settings on a camera are an accurate reflection of reality. It doesn’t take into account traditional darkroom techniques like dodging and burning or their digital equivalents, nor does it account for “alterations” due to things like lens distortion, lighting, etc.

        The wishy-washy language (and obviously the standards of the paper) are the real problem… at least when they get caught with their pants down that is.

      • @A Photo Editor,

        If only Martins had titled his shot “Portrait of a Building Under Construction” all of this trouble could have been avoided.

          • @A Photo Editor,

            “Are you trying to make reality better than it really was”

            Just playing devil’s advocate here, but wouldn’t it be possible then to say that the Edgar Martins images that kicked this whole thing off were him doing just that – trying to make reality better than it really was? It could be argued that they were intended in a similar manner to still life images (just on a larger scale), or better yet, in the same way architectural photos are used in the magazine.

            I’ve shot for the Times and I can say that non-portrait/still life/fashion shoots are frequently directed and/or manipulated before and after the shutter clicks.

            You think Todd Eberle, Jason Schmidt, and Raymond Meier shoot without moving any furniture, setting any lights, or doing any retouching?

            http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2009/04/19/style/t/index.html#pageName=19lynni

            http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2009/04/19/style/t/index.html#pageName=19ehrlichi

            http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2008/09/28/style/t/index.html#pageName=28bellinii

            • @dude,
              Yes, I think you are right about that and I’ve heard from several photographers that you take an assignment (especially the first one) from the magazine even if it’s a dog or even if you’re unsure if you can pull it off. I gleaned from that statement he issued that he was simply employing one of his many techniques he uses to make his art. So, you get out in the field and you find some situations that are ok but not quite what you need so you solve the problem. Photographers are problem solvers.

              I think they need to better define the rules.

  2. So reading between the lines, the standard NYT freelance contract stipulates no digital alterations. That clause was presumably either overlooked or ignored in the Martins case. Also, presumably, the phony drop shadows in the Nadav Kander shoot were allowed because they were portraits (or still life, or fashion, or vegetable matter, or some other category where Photoshopping is tolerated).

    OK, fine. that helps. Reiterating the policy is probably the appropriate thing to do in the wake of the Martins episode. But unless Mr(s). Redacted issues this same memo once a month, the issue is going to come up again.

    A lot of photographers are using various post processing techniques as part of their individual style. That raises the question of when the NYT hires a freelancer, are they by default accepting that photographers’ style? And, if not, why hire a freelancer vs. using a staff photographer who knows the NYT rules?

    The whole Martins issue seems to be a series of judgment/communication breakdowns. Why did they hire him when it’s pretty obvious by looking at his Web site that he uses post processing as part of his style? If the NYT just liked his artistic vision, why didn’t whatever editor in charge of working with him pay extra close attention to his images to make sure they met NYT standards? I think this is always going to be an issue of NYT editors enforcing the policy, not relying on freelancers to read, understand and embrace the policy.

    A memo from someone important is probably the right course of action right now, but what would be more interesting is whether the NYT has made other changes in the way it deals with freelancers to prevent this situation from happening in the future.

    Tom

      • Nigel Tufnel

        @robert wright,

        Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.
        Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.
        Marty DiBergi: Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?
        Nigel Tufnel: These go to eleven.

  3. if the Times hires a freelancer it IS the freelancers responsibility to understand the rules and photograph within those standards…its pretty simple really – the photo needs to depict reality of what you saw at the scene and within the boundaries of what you could do in a darkroom in regards to manipulation…if Martin accepted the assignment he should have also accepted the Times terms regarding shooting it and thats that – if your a fine art photographer or one that relies on manipulating your images to create the final product, manipulating in a way beyond what the Time’s terms stipulate, you should not take the job if you feel you cannot produce a product up to par without excessive Photoshop or other software…its very simple really, and certainly not the fault of the editor that hired him as editors should be able to “see” into a persons portfolio and determine that they are capable of making great images, believe in them enough to hire them with the understanding that they will produce the images within the constraints, or to simply decline the assignment

    photographers need to start taking responsibility for taking on jobs that may not suit them and either suck it up and photograph it anyway or simply decline it…I mean really, Martin goes and fucks up an assignment that someone else could have been give the chance t0 produce very nicely without the clone tool

    • @Chris,

      I disagree. With any contracted service (photography or otherwise) it is the client’s ultimate responsibility to ensure delivered services meet the contractual obligation.

      The terms in this case don’t seem that ironclad — digital manipulation is prohibited, except in cases when it’s tolerated. There is certainly room for confusion, selective interpretation of the rules, or (as Rob pointed out) reason to believe the rules aren’t really enforced that rigorously.

      Now I agree if you have aspirations to do repeat work for any client (or get a positive recommendation from them) it might make sense to do everything possible to make sure your work meets the clients’ requirements. But I think it is unrealistic to rely on verbiage in a freelance agreement as the primary vehicle to communicate NYT policy.

      The NYT employs editors, lots of them. It’s their job to make sure any content conforms to the quality, style and policies of the publication. It’s also the editors’ responsibility to maintain the relationship with freelancers.

      It’s generally preferable to address problems before publishing them. When stuff isn’t right, you hold it until it’s fixed. Publishing things, then blaming subsequent problems on a failure of a freelancer to obey NYT rules is hardly a good excuse.

      The Martins stuff wasn’t really time sensitive. It could have been held a couple weeks until any issues were definitively resolved.

      • @Tom, it is the NYTs job to make sure the content conforms to the quality and style of the publication, yes. And it is the photographers job to perform within the contractual obligations – its not that hard. As well we, as photographers, are in a BUSINESS to provide images to the client = our interpretation of what the clients wants with additional images of what we think is better/best if we think it doesn’t gel with the editors expectations. It is a basic skill to give the client what they want. The NYT contract is not that hard to read and I’m sure my 14 year old cousin could summarize it quite adequately. Its as if everyone wants to be an artist and blame everyone else for their lack of paying attention to what the client is asking for. I just think that its a bit of a cop-out to blame it on a freelance agreement and and editor…editors have enough to do already and it shouldn’t be there job to also ask whether they are receiving honest pictures or not – honest in the sense that they meet the requirements. In regards to the toleration of digital manipulation some of the time, I don’t think its truly the case unless they are stating it and if they are then they are also communicating that to the freelancer. Does this void the contract? no, because it specifies in certain cases. So yeah I think you hit it on the head with the “aspirations to do repeat work”, of course if you want to work with a client like in any business you communicate as it is a back and forth relationship. If you don’t care for working with the client then yeah by all means do what ever you want but what is the point of taking on the assignment in the first place? Be honest with yourself and say “its not for you” and let someone else have it.

        Everything can be held a couple weeks, unfortunately that isn’t how it works – it should – but it doesn’t as everyone is trying to do things yesterday which is lame but I still believe it is not the editors role to ask questions as to whether they are getting honest work. What is the point of the contract then?

        • @Chris,

          Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you that personal integrity is just as important as talent and skill. It’s hard to imagine taking a gig without a clear understanding of what the client wants and a desire to make the client happy. On the other hand it’s equally hard to imagine an organization with a stated hard policy against digital manipulation failing to flag the image in question as suspect.

          Rules are only as good as their enforcement. In this case the NYT rules don’t appear to have been enforced well or consistently.

          Honestly, I think there is plenty of blame to go around on this one. As I said earlier, officially restating the rules from a senior level feels like an appropriate step. But I wonder what structural changes are happening to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.

          Clearly there was not a meeting of the minds between Martins and the NYT. From the outside looking in, it’s really impossible to say who was more at fault. But having to retract editorial content is never good. So I suspect the NYT wound up with the dirtier end of the stick.

  4. might be a more important discussion to note that the NYT essentially makes all freelance photographers work under a “Work For Hire” contract, for something like $200 per news assignment, to which NYT owns the work and then grants BACK to the photographer some income for future uses.

  5. @ Jacob, Well, the way to do it is to get assignments through The International Herald Tribune—the foreign edition of the New York Times—because then you get paid in Euros. That’s what I do :) The NYT has combined The IHT website into its own, but a paper edition of The IHT still comes out in Europe and Paris based photo editors assign for it.

  6. No one at the Times has been able to adequately explain to me why still life, portraiture and fashion photographs are unworthy of the same distinctions as other photographic specialties. Why a digitally manipulated portrait (involving, say, multiple images in a composite, photo-realistic image) should receive the same treatment and photo credit as an un-retouched image is inexplicable. The Times is rightly concerned about photographic integrity, yet seems to imply that no portrait, still life or fashion photograph has a photographic integrity worth mentioning. It would seem only fair that if an image is un-retouched it should be credited as a photograph, and if it is manipulated, as a photo illustration, regardless of the subject matter.

  7. I’m not suprised they did this with the recent hoopla but it does irritate me a bit that I can’t add or remove something from a landscape or it’s considered altered but in Fashion it is considered un-altered.

  8. “Except of course portraits, fashion and still life, natch.”

    this is actually not entirely true. where i work we have received very similar instructions for a few stories in the magazine. some portraits we worked on had to be reverted to the unretouched file. yet they still said that such things as removing of lightstands and cords and equipment is fine. so basically don’t retouch them at all, but you can still retouch them. honestly, a photograph itself alters reality, but that is a different argument.

    i find no reason why they should be wary of retouching portraits. when you set up a portrait it is already manipulating the situation. besides, a formal portrait is not really news photography anyway. they seem to be rather skittish as they referred to a “past story” which was an obvious reference to edgar martins.

  9. It’s reality or it’s portrait. Food, fashion, whatever, it’s a setup. The other isn’t. One is advertising (really. “Hey check out this story that wouldn’t blip your radar unless you saw this beautifully lit photo.” ), one documents. I think NYT is more concerned about the Brian Walskis and Adnan Hajjs of the world. –But seriously, how did Reuters miss that smoke?

  10. A couple final (at least from me) thoughts:

    1. I don’t think it is practical for the NYT, or anyone else, to develop a set of rules that will indisputably define when, and how much, digital alteration is acceptable. That has to be a case-by-case editorial judgment call. When you think about it, those judgment calls have been made for years — long before Photoshop and digital photography. It’s what editors get paid to do. At some point publications, as well as readers, need to have faith that their reporters, photographers and editors will do the responsible thing. It’s why some publications are respected and others are not. When errors in judgment occur, deal with the individuals involved rather than trying to develop blanket rules that cannot be rationally enforced or universally understood.

    2. The real question seems to be one of labeling (photo or illustration). Looking back at the Martins case, only one image (the mirrored shot of a building under construction) was really in dispute. Had the NYT labeled that one image an illustration would all the controversy have been avoided? It was a great image. It made the series more interesting. Photo or illustration, it probably should have remained in the series. If, after the series ran, Martins were able to provide conclusive proof that there is actually a building with perfectly symmetrical framing, the NYT correction stating the image should have been labeled a photograph would probably have gone unnoticed. Again, the line when a photo becomes an digitally altered image is probably always going to remain a judgment call, but is the new safe bet when in doubt call it an illustration? Would most readers even notice if some images in a series were labeled “Photo by…” and some “Illustration by…?”

    3. When it comes to working with freelancers I still maintain it’s the editorial management of the publication that holds the responsibility of enforcing the standards of the publication. Most freelancers are responsible people. They want to do the right thing. But they aren’t full-time employees and can’t be expected to read, memorize and obey every rule. The editors who work with freelancers have to make sure the publication’s rules are followed. There has to be communication. It has to be a two-way street. I don’t know Martins, but what appears (at least to me) to be an effort by the NYT to put all the blame on Martins really galls me. The hierarchy of NYT editors charged with approving content are equally at fault for failing to spot an image that (again, at least to my eye) had obviously been altered. They should have resolved the situation BEFORE the image was published.

    4. The Photoshop genie is out of the bottle. It can’t be put back. Treating digitally altered images as if they are some sort of pox on the good name of journalism is pretty silly. People seem to forget there is a large library of fake and doctored photographs produced in good old fashioned (in some cases really old fashioned) dark rooms. At the end of the day the issue is about integrity, responsibility and fairness not the underlying technology used to produce content. In this era of 24-hour news, instant deadlines and advertiser-influenced content, the concepts of integrity and accuracy seem to have suffered greatly. If publications (all news organizations really) redoubled their commitment to accuracy and integrity many other problems would probably go away.