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Falling Soldier; Original titled: Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936

In 2002, Thomas H. Wheeler published Phototruth or Photofiction?: Ethics And Media Imagery In the Digital Age, in which he described four phototruth tests that may be used to judge the ethical implications of a nonfictional image [1]. Wheeler formed these four tests by adapting a few principles outlined by W.J. Mitchell in his 1992 work The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post‐Photographic Era[2]. These four tests are not applicable to fictional images, meaning any image that is explicitly attempting to deceive or convey satire. In order for an explicitly nonfictional photo to be considered ethical, it must pass all four of Wheeler's tests.


Viewfinder Test

Viewfinder Test failure

The photo shows what the viewer would have seen had s/he been standing next to the person taking the photo. No digital or photographic tricks are employed to add, remove, rearrange, or substantially alter objects in the photo. A photo, for example, that adds a black football player to an all white team fails the test. [3]

The picture of the man holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa on the right fails this test because in reality the Tower is 183.27 ft tall and the man is probably around 6 ft tall. If the viewer had been standing next to the photographer, it would not look like the man was truly holding up the Tower – it is an optical illusion. On the other hand, one might argue that this picture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa would pass the Viewfinder test because a viewer would see the exactly same thing as the photo camera. But the test does not end there. Although the photo was not digitally altered, there were photographic tricks used to make the relative size of the man look as tall as the Tower, so it fails the test.

Process Test

Process Test failure

The photo’s processing (using digital and/or photographic techniques) cannot alter the image beyond what is traditionally accepted in the darkroom. Acceptable processes are cleaning scratches and dust from the image, tonal adjustments, cropping that does not mislead, and color correction. The Dick Cheney meat cleaver/CIA torture photo fails this test. [3]The reason for this is because the original picture includes Dick Cheney's family at the kitchen, where he is helping to cut the meat for a dinner. The crop only focuses on Cheney cutting meat with a big knife, which may imply some kind of a sinister feeling. This is what tabloids and semi-tabloid news media organizations often aim for, all for the sake of ratings.

Technical Credibility Test

Technical Credibility Test failure

This test is effectively failed by sloppy constructions of improbably visual occurrences. Examples would include head transplants and amazing physical feats by out of shape politicians. Essentially, the greater the “photoshop” work, the harder it is to detect credibility issues through technical inspection. Is the fictional content of the photo (or photolike image) so obvious that it readily tips off viewers as to its manipulation? Some examples of photos that fail the test include the Oprah/Ann Margaret composite photo, the US Grant composite (it also possibly fails the viewfinder test as well). [3] This Oprah photograph suggests that she had this specific body at the moment of photo camera shooting, but the reality is that Ann Margaret's body was put in the place of Oprah's original body.

One might argue that this photograph is realistic enough to fool many people. But the test allows for the possibility of a skillful manipulation that does not quite scream fake. Therefore, this photograph fails the test.

Obvious Implausibility Test

Obvious Implausibility Test failure

If the manipulation is technically precise (see test #3 above) but lacks a clear intent to spoof, parody, or otherwise mess with perception and imagination, the photo fails this test. The O. J. Simpson Time Cover fails this test. [3]

The O. J. Simpson TIME cover was darkened in order to give it a sinister feeling. In reality, this particular photograph originally showed Simpson with somewhat indifferent, but definitely not sinister face expressions. Newsweeks' editor in chief, [Wikipedia:Richard Mills Smith|Richard Smith,] said that TIME "didn't change it enough to make it clear that it was an illustration" [4], and as a result misleads the public and fails the Obvious Implausibility Test.

Ethical Implications

Whether intentional or not, photos suggesting a different or distorted reality, are considered highly unethical in the field of journalism. The artistic freedom in providing misleading photos is not really appropriate as the focus of journalism is to present the public with descriptions or images meant to reveal truth, not to distort it. However, despite this stigma, many photographers and journalists still attempt to doctor photos in ways that deceive their viewers in order to gain influence within the media or popular public opinion.

Intent of the Source

The main focus on determining the ethical implications of a photo in journalism is the intent of its source. In some forms of journalism it is acceptable to distort and recreate false impressions of reality. In these instances the explicit intent is to intrigue and provoke interest in people that like arts or fictitious images or descriptions. So long as the source states that as the intent of its images or descriptions, then it is not violating any ethical principles since it is not claiming to be presenting viewers with "accurate" depictions of reality, that are in fact, distortions of it.

Acceptable Photo Manipulation

According to the Webster University Journal Policy for the Ethical Use of Photographs, some generally allowable photo manipulations include:

  • Brightness/contrast control
  • Burning & dodging to control tonal range
  • Color correction
  • Cropping a frame to fit the layout
  • Retouching of dust & scratches

These allowable manipulations, however, are only allowable to the extent that they do not violate Wheeler's four phototruth tests.

Unacceptable Photo Manipulation

While typical unacceptable manipulations are:

  • Adding, moving, or removing objects within the frame
  • Color change other than to restore what the subject looked like
  • Cropping a frame in order to alter its meaning
  • Flopping a photograph (left/right reversal)
  • Printing a photograph in any orientation other than "true" orientation

Digital Era and Technology

As new technology becomes more sophisticated and older technology becomes cheaper and widespread, it is easier to take photos and alter them in such a way as to mislead people. It is easy to shoot a picture from a cellphone, which is then edited in Photoshop to suggest an UFO visit for example. It can be argued that these new technologies must be designed with these ethical considerations in mind in order to try and discourage photo editing that displays falsifications. It is necessary that ethics continue to evolve to keep up with these new technologies.

William Mitchell

The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post‐Photographic Era

W.J. Mitchell discussed a few topics in his 1992 paper on photographic intention and artifice [2] which can be related to Tom Wheeler’s four photofiction tests. Mitchell introduces the idea of a photograph’s “aura” in relation to its originality, such that the aura is far more prominent when the photo is an original. [2] This idea relates to Wheeler’s Viewfinder Test because failure of this test suggests that the originality of the photo has been altered by adding, removing, or changing features of the photo. Failing the Viewfinder Test therefore negatively impacts the photo’s aura due to the unoriginality.

Another idea Mitchell discusses is that of intention and objectivity of a photo. In this point he talks about the difference between a photograph and a painting, and within the argument he presents the argument that in some views of photographic practice—as represented, for example, by Ansel Adams—the darkroom acts of development, enlarging, cropping, and printing are also taken as essential. [2] This relates directly to Wheeler’s Process Test, which tests for improper use of these darkroom techniques. If improperly implemented, as agreed upon by Mitchell and Wheeler, darkroom techniques such as cropping or enlarging can substantially alter the reality of the photo.

In addition to the aura and intention, Mitchell also discusses the provenance of a particular photo or set of photos. The provenance is basically the biography of the photo, detailing its attributes including its history, photographer, etc. The provenance of a photo is an important thing when determining its originality. Wheeler’s Technical Credibility test can be related to the idea of provenance in that a photo that fails the technical credibility test would be unable to obtain any sort of legitimate provenance. Mitchell states “The only difference between an original file and a copy is in the tag recording time and date of creation—and that can easily be changed. Image files therefore leave no trail, and it is often impossible to establish with certainty the provenance of a digital image.” [2] However, if a viewer can readily tell that a photo is not original due to its technical rendering flaws, the viewer would certainly not believe that the photo was any sort of original with a history of ownership.

Finally, Mitchell talks about an image’s relationship to visual discourses in relation to determining its plausibility. He says that the plausibility of a photograph’s circumstances is determined relative to each viewer’s position within discourses. [2] This relates to Wheeler’s Obvious Implausibility test, as the viewer will make his or her own conclusion about the plausibility of a photo based on their individual knowledge structure. Regardless of the viewer’s knowledge structure or position within discourses, an obviously implausible photo is implausible to everyone.

See Also


  1. Wheeler, Phototruth or Photofiction?: Ethics and Media Imagery in the Digital Age
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Mitchell, William. The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post‐Photographic. MIT press 1992.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3: Photofiction Tests, Conway 2009.
  4. Manipulates Photograph, 1994

1. Assignment 3: Photofiction Tests, Conway 2009.

2. Tom Wheeler, Phototruth or Photofiction?: Ethics and Media Imagery in the Digital Age

3. Old Fashioned Fakery, Wheeler 2002

4. Kennerly, David. "Essay: Chop and Crop." NY Times, 2009.

5. Mitchell, William. The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post‐Photographic. MIT press 1992.

6. Webster University Journal Policy for the Ethical Use of Photographs

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