April 22, 2000 / Law/Ethics / Photography / Spring 2000

Picture Perfect

Written by Linda Puntney

Ethical choices with Photoshop not always clear cut

What do you mean Bubba won’t be in the football team picture?” screamed the angry father. “He was the team. Without him there would have been no postseason play. No championship. No Coach of the Year. No, no…”

“Bubba did have an exceptional year,” countered the yearbook adviser, “but he simply wasn’t here the day the team pictures were taken.”

“You’re right,” yelled the father. “He was at State University on a recruiting visit.”

“But the fact remains he knew when the pictures were to be taken and he chose to be absent. Naturally, we’ll have candid and action pictures of him in the football coverage,” offered the adviser. “There’s just no way to get him in the team picture at this point. It’s February and the uniforms have been put away, some seniors graduated at semester. It’s just impossible for us to retake the picture.”

“Then what are you going to do? It’s just not right that Bubba isn’t in that picture.”

“Well,” the adviser said, “I guess we could…”

How that sentence is finished probably has more to do with ethics than any rule or educational maxim the adviser might have been taught. Ethics are considerably more difficult than rules – especially when dealing with something as emotional as memories and as permanent as a yearbook. It would be easier if a set of rules existed for dealing with every situation. Rules give you the black or the white, the right or the wrong. There is no second guessing, introspection or much thought that goes into following rules.

Ethics, on the other hand, are just one massive blob of gray where individuals decide for themselves what is the right thing to do. That is why it is so important yearbook staffs discuss ethics and develop a method to determine which choice is the right choice, especially when it comes to the use of Photoshop to alter photographs. Which option will best serve the students and the school community? Which will most accurately portray the story of the year?

The answers to those questions are often more difficult than they appear. As individuals we may have conflicting loyalties. The right thing to do can change depending on the perspective.

In the case of Bubba, there are a number of courses of action which have been suggested for the adviser.

At Pella Community High School, Pella, Iowa, which has a student population of 650 in grades 9 through 12, Adviser Ann Visser said her staff would not reshoot the picture, but they might run a “not pictured” line.

“If the student or the coach specifically asked us to name the missing person as not pictured, we would,” Visser said, “but they would have to come to us and ask. Otherwise we would just list who is there in the photo.”

Visser’s staff is not the only one to expect a show of initiative.

“We wouldn’t do anything about getting a picture of someone who missed a group or team picture in the yearbook,” Jim Cronin, adviser at Rancho Cucamonga High School, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., said. “The responsibility is on the club leader or the coach. We tell groups they should get us the picture or tell us when and we’ll come and take it. They have to help us get that picture.”

Rancho Cucamonga has an enrollment of 2,850 students in grades 9 through 12. Cronin has a 36-member staff to produce their 392-page, spring delivery book. An adviser for eight years, he has determined what works best for his large book and large school.

At Grace Academy, where the student population is 310 in grades K through 12, one might think Garry Shultz and his staff of nine would have a different perspective. They do not. Shultz’s decision about what to do about Bubba’s picture is the same as Cronin’s, although it is based on resources available to him.

“I’d have to consider what’s best for the book and the school,” Shultz said. “There are two things to look at. The first is time. Can the picture be retaken? Is there time to do that and make deadline? The second is cost. In a school like ours where finances are a definite issue I’d have to consider if there is a cost involved and who would pay for it. If there were time and Bubba was willing to pay the retake and late fees, I’d say sure, bring me another picture of the entire team and we’ll use it.”

Making the book an accurate depiction of what happened during the school year is a deciding factor in how adviser Susan Newburger, Park Hill South High School, Parkville, Mo., and her staff would handle a situation similar to Bubba’s.

“We would run with the existing picture,” Newburger said. “We might try to include an action picture of the missing person or include coverage about him in the text, but the group or team pictures show who was there on that day. We don’t alter that.”

Bubba’s parents might see the situation differently.

“Surely there’s something that could be done,” Ann Foster, a parent from Manhattan, Kan., said. “I mean, he was there for the entire season. He led the team. Maybe his head could be placed on another body or since he is a key to the team’s success maybe a graphic with his head in the center of the key could be used. There ought to be some way to include him.”

Cronin and Shultz agree most advisers would like to please the parents, but the decision could come down to practicality.

“I always try to please the parents,” Cronin said. “If possible, we’d offer to retake the picture and submit the new one on proof.”

At Grace Academy, Shultz said Bubba would probably be elsewhere in the football coverage.

“If he’s that good, he’s somewhere,” Shultz said. “He’s not going to be missed because the reality is we would look to feature him in a single shot or an action picture.”

But, there is a point Shultz said he would want to make to the parents.

“I’d want to explain to the parents that this is not Bubba’s book; not his portfolio,” he said. “This book represents the entire school. If Bubba is left out of one picture, it’s not the end of the world.

Students seem to agree with the advisers.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘What’s more important, the book or Bubba?'” Jake Palenske, a former high school yearbook editor who is now a college junior, said. “Bubba will probably be all over the book anyway and if reshooting the picture would delay distribution or cost the school more, then the decision is a no-brainer. You have to go with what’s best for the students. Obviously, Bubba is newsworthy. If there’s time to make deadline and not hold anything up, maybe a separate picture would be appropriate.”

Altering photos drew a mixed bag of comments from advisers and students alike. Most agreed that photos provided to the staff by an outside source, such as a senior portrait photographer, could be run even if they had been altered, but that using Photoshop to alter action photos is a different situation.

“They took out blemishes in my senior portrait 31 years ago, long before there was Photoshop,” Newburger said. “We feel comfortable letting the portrait photographer handle that.”

Shultz agreed manipulating portrait pictures was no problem.

“We try to schedule the portraits early enough so we can get the retakes in and still make the deadline,” Shultz said. “We try to work within the time frame to allow for adjustments.”

He said he would not put in a picture that was unflattering to a student.

“That’s just not kind,” Shultz said. “I try to use pictures which compliment and serve as an encouragement to students. We’ll retake or even stage shots if necessary.”

Cronin said his staff would encourage the student to go back to the portrait studio for a retake. Although his staff may be flexible when it comes to substituting portrait pictures, they have definite standards required of the portrait pictures.

“Every one of our seniors wears a gown. They are universally the same and there are no exceptions,” he said. “It’s part of the tradition at our school and it gives us consistency.”

At Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Laura Widmer said her staff has always had specific standards for portrait pictures.

“Some policies you just stick with,” Widmer said. “No hats in class pictures is a constant for everyone. It makes for better pictures and provides some consistency for the section.”

Palenske, who as a student editor dealt with the issue of altering portrait pictures, said no changes should be made.

“The yearbook is a record book,” he said. “You don’t change the photo because that’s what the kid chose to wear that day and the photo ought to be a representation of what the student looked like in that year. That’s life.”

Advisers said deciding whether or not to manipulate an action photo often depended on the circumstance. Removing graffiti from the background of an otherwise powerful photo was generally considered acceptable as long as the real content of the picture was not altered.

“Removing graffiti from the background is acceptable,” Cronin said. “Taking people out is not.”

Newburger agreed.

“We will do clean-up if it doesn’t alter the photo’s intent,” she said. “If the background with graffiti isn’t part of the photograph’s intended content, we’d take out the graffiti.”

For Robin Sawyer, Manteo High School, Manteo, N.C., with an enrollment of 1,100 in grades 9 through 12, there was no question about what to do with the photo.

“That answer is simple. We’d find another photo,” she said. “If it was a shot that was so good we couldn’t stand to be without it we would take it into Photoshop, remove the background entirely as a COB (cut-out background) and turn it into art. That way it would be clear to the reader that it was art.”

Shultz described a similar situation where words written on a students’ tie would have made the photo unusable for the yearbook.

“The tie was inappropriate, so we had the words air-brushed out,” he said. “We would first try to alter the photo for use and if that wouldn’t work we wouldn’t use the photograph.”

Newburger’s staff encountered a relating situation when the boys basketball team was in the finals of the state tournament. The game was played in the Hearnes Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The staff wanted a photo of the scoreboard showing the final score of the game.

“That scoreboard told the story,” Newburger said. “We lost, but that wasn’t bad for a school in its second year to come in second in the state tournament.”

But the scoreboard told another story, too. On both sides of the score were beer ads. Newburger said there was no way to get the shot without including the ads.

“We have a student policy which says we will do nothing which might promote drug or alcohol use,” Newburger said. “We felt the ads on the scoreboard might do that so we went to the principal and asked his opinion. Together we decided to digitally remove the ads. The ads weren’t what the story was about and we wanted the picture of the score.”

Others, like Widmer and Palenske, object to altering any aspect of an action shot.

“The graffiti was there,” Widmer said. “The picture which shows it is truth. Anyone who had seen the graffiti would know the photo was a lie if you altered it.”

Palenske said his concern is that it is difficult to set limits on photo manipulation.

“People will take advantage of it and misuse it,” he said. “Besides, it’s just wrong. When you manipulate a photo that’s when you cross the line from being a yearbook to being a swimsuit calendar.”

Newburger said students need to take responsibility for their decisions.

“We talk about ethics in a lot of ways,” she said. “When we learn Photoshop, we talk about why we might not want to do everything we could do. I tell my students there’s a lot of trust in their abilities and there are also ramifications when they make decisions that upset people. I try to tell them what I think those ramifications will be. And when difficulties do arise I try to mediate between the parties. The students know I won’t bail them out.”

Most advisers and students involved in yearbooks would agree that “the supreme test of good (yearbook) journalism is the measure of its public service.” Walter Williams, who was dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri until 1935, certainly did not have yearbooks in mind when he made that statement, but what could be more of a public service than capturing the memories of a select group of people? What could demand a stronger sense of ethics than recording the collective history of the institution for all time?

Every yearbook adviser and staff must develop a set of questions and compass points to follow as they determine their own answer to the the question, “What would a good and honest person do in this situation?” Or, in the case of Bubba, to help that adviser properly finish the sentence, “Well, I guess we could…”

One Response to “Picture Perfect”

June 01, 2012 at 4:14 pm, Matthew Upson said:

Hi Linda,

I noticed in the press that a yearbook with Madonna’s (the singer) photograph at the age of 14 is being auctioned by Christies. I am wondering what are the legalities involved? What if you are classmate ( I am not) who’s photo is also in the yearbook. Are you able to object on the basis you were a minor at the time? Does Christies have to chase down the photographer and demonstrate that every minor pictured in the yearbook had parental consent?

Thank you in advance for your comments.



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Linda Puntney