Volcano picture erupts modern darkroom dilemma
Steve Russell - Staff Photographer
We hate it!
Looking at a picture on the wire, we are wowed by the image until that little nagging voice in the back of our head creeps in, questioning the image. And when the picture advisory crossed the wires, it leaves us a little disappointed.
The culprit this time? Toning.
There is no way for every newspaper or wire service to be everywhere and have every angle covered. That is why third party pictures might be sought out from breaking news pictures of events from time to time.
The Good: We have a picture. The bad? We have to bank our reputations on that image.
Iceland's recent volcanic eruption placed Reuters in that position.
One of the most striking pictures out of Iceland was taken by farmer Ólafur Eggertsson's wife (her name unavailable currently, the picture was originally credited to him), which eventually was distributed worldwide by Reuters.
A sharp photo editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, Wade Laube, had some doubts about the image.
"One picture stood out from all of the others — so much so it was the clear choice for our coverage in the Herald. Well, we wanted it to be but something about it didn’t seem quite right," Laube writes on his blog.
Laube and the Herald decided to put in a call to Reuters Singapore to ask about the image. By the time he called, Reuters had already begun to seek out Eggertsson to retrieve a raw (un-enhanced) file. In the wait for that picture the Herald decided to use a different picture in their first edition. The original was obtained by Reuters and the Herald used the new version on the front of their second edition and Reuters sent out an Advisory letting clients know that "an updated, correctly toned version immediately follows this advisory."
The advisory reads, "ATTENTION EDITORS - QUALITY REPEAT FOR SIN500 TRANSMITTED ON APRIL 15, 2010 AT APPROXIMATELY 2000 GMT. WE HAVE OBTAINED FROM THE SOURCE THE ORIGINAL FILE OF THIS HANDOUT IMAGE. AN UPDATED, CORRECTLY TONED VERSION IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWS THIS ADVISORY. WE ARE SORRY FOR ANY INCONVENIENCE CAUSED. REUTERS"
Gary Hershorn, Reuters' News Pictures Editor for North America, says that Reuters typically does not like to move unsourced third party images, but they do come along at times that need to be sent. "It is our policy to put ‘Quality from Source‘ when sending user generated images. We continued to try and contact the farmer and were successful and acquired the original image which we sent on the wire"
News organizations are always on guard against images that circulate after natural disasters. Some agencies got burned after the Haitian earthquake as images filled the social media web. Many of the images were from the Chinese earthquake two years ago.
This picture? A Reuters' TV freelancer in Iceland acquired the image from the paper and sent it to Reuters TV in Stockholm, who passed it on to Berlin who passed it onto Reuters Pictures Berlin.
Hershorn says in the investigation of the volcano picture, they found it on an Icelandic newspaper web site and it resembled the original file. A second day of digging revealed that the picture did pass through the hands of someone at the paper and that version was toned and ended up distributed to Reuters, Zuma, Getty and a few other agencies.
Why the toning was done is still a mystery, it might have been what the file looked like after a press curve was applied.
What exactly happened with the toning, and if it is acceptable, is constantly the subject of debate in the photojournalism community.
But for the most part, news organizations do not manipulate images, whether this be while taking the picture or afterwards in Photoshop.
The Toronto Star's Code of ethics reads, "Altering the content of documentary photographs through technology is not allowed. ……. What may seem innocuous to some inevitably leads to an erosion of public confidence. Manipulation aimed at correcting technical deficiencies, such as burning, dodging, spotting for dust, noise reduction, contrast and colour balancing, are acceptable. That said, these adjustments and enhancements should be used with great care and should not alter the integrity of the image."
Just a little sidebar here.
Photojournalists take great care in ensuring that the photograph is made in camera. The better the image coming out of the camera means that we spend little time tinkering with the picture in Photoshop. Reuters' Lucas Jackson talks about how he got this picture.