The ethics of dodging and burning

I have found some of the old articles from  ‘Digital Journalist’ websites quite interesting and thought-provoking, particularly where the practice of manually enhancing photographs is discussed.

One such article is where Kenny F Irby,  Irby.K. 2003. ‘A Photojournalist Confession’ [accessed August 2013],  discusses the ethical issues of burning and dodging areas of a photograph.

He starts off by confessing to using burning and dodging techniques himself and like all professional photographers, having done so for many years.  This is prompted by a decision by the North Carolina Press Association to rescind prizes made to photojournalist Patrick Schneider because he had ‘influenced the reality’ of his photographs by darkening certain areas.  Schneider was also suspended for 3 days without pay for his misdemeanour, so his actions were obviously seen by the press association to be very serious.  Apparently this was quite a controversial decision because darkroom techniques had, for some time, allowed these practices.   According to another article though, Halstead. D. 2003  ‘If You Think Dodging and Burning is a Problem Now, Just Wait’ [accessed August 2013],  the complete background of one of the photographs had been removed to heighten the impact of the picture and surely this is taking things too far.  Stan Grossfield, referred to by Irby in this article talks about the purpose of burning being to ‘direct the eye rather than to eliminate content’ and the general tone of the article is that news photographers have to show what they see, not what they want to see and I think we would all agree as readers that this is what we would expect.

One of the things I found interesting about the Irby article was that he likened the  dodging and  burning process to editing the grammar in written work.  Just as lightning and darkening areas of a photograph can change the mood and meaning of an image, stretching or breaking the rules of grammar often changes the meaning of a sentence.  He goes on to say that most written work requires some editing for it to make sense and nobody challenges that, so what is the difference  between this and some basic toning and preparation of a photograph before it can be published?  I can see what he is saying but I’m not sure that I would accept that the editing of written work is always ethical either.  How often do we hear of people’s comments from interviews being taken out of context and newspaper articles being skewed to suit the political or other views of those writing it or paying for it?

These articles go on to discuss what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of manually enhancing photographs and that aside from standards set by, such as the press authority, each individual photographer must have their own set of ethical guidelines.  At the time his article was written, 2003,  Halstead at least, recognises that the big challenge is yet to come with the increasing popularity of digital photography.



About Anne Bryson

I live in Gloucestershire with my husband Iain and West Highland Terrier, Isla. I enjoy golf, photography and my grandchildren, not necessarily in that order! Having completed a 10 week digital photography course with the Open University in 2010 and wanting to take photography further, I enrolled on the Open College of the Arts BA (Hons) starting with 'The Art of Photography' which I thoroughly enjoyed. Next came Digital Photographic Practice followed by People and Place. In April 2016 I progressed to level two with Documentary and in June 2018 enrolled on my latest OCA course, Landscape.
This entry was posted in Personal Reflections, Reading or observation, Reality and intervention. Bookmark the permalink.

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