The seamy side of photojournalism

South Dakota Badlands, 1936. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.

Back on June 6 in a post titled “Truth in photography” I expressed my disappointment about a photographer staging his photo. As we discussed at the time, staging is a common practice which may or may not be acceptable to a publisher, an audience, or the judges in a contest.

This photo was one of many shot by Arthur Rothstein in 1936 depicting a severe drought in South Dakota. As it turns out, Rothstein simply toted a single cow skull around and shot it with various backgrounds and lighting. In a 1964 interview, long after the duplicity was discovered, Rothstein said he was using the skull for “exercises in photography,” experimenting with “the texture of the skull, the texture of the earth, the cracks in the soil, the lighting” and “how the lighting changed from the east to the west as the sun went down.” Makes one wonder who’s trying to fool whom.

Anyway, an interesting article on Slate — “These Altered Images Show Photojournalism at Its Worst” — features more photos known for liberties taken by the photographers. Some you’ll recognize; some I’d never seen. All are part of an exhibit, “Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography,” currently on view at the Bronx Documentary Center. For the original descriptions of how some of the images were altered or staged, see BDC’s “Altered images: Is this real or faked?”

3 thoughts on “The seamy side of photojournalism

  1. Deplorable practices, especially when the perpetrator claims to be a professional. I see no difference between altering a photo and faking a news story. Back in the day, we did learn to use what was known as the “posed, unposed” photo technique in J-School photography courses. However, that is an entirely different thing. It’s actually necessary to get decent photos of award presentations and similar stuff–the photos we liked to call “grip and grin.”

    1. It makes one suspicious of every photo the media put out there, especially the seemingly good, highly dramatic ones. Have lost track of the war photos we find out later have added smoke, added rockets, added soldiers. A good photojournalist could find good shots in a war or warlike scene (or elsewhere) without having to create, pose, or manipulate them artificially. And isn’t it their job to show us events as they actually happened, not as the photographer wishes they had happened? (I realize that’s probably very “old school” on my part, but I resent the modern generation thinking they can/should create their own reality.)

... and that's my two cents