Reality?

I do a lot of post-production to my images.  Lately, however I wonder where the line is between an image of reality and something more akin to art.  You could argue that aperture and shutter speed and white balance and framing and image selection all warp reality enough that the question is meaningless.  Sure, that's true, but what about the more deliberate stuff and how it effects the ethical side of things.

Way back when I remember that National Geographic got in trouble for moving the pyramids closer together for a cover image.  Everyone got really upset, and to think that was before photoshop, so some guy did it in the darkroom.  Almost every year there's some scandal or another about some AP photographer doctoring a war image or some such.  I tend to agree with the critics there, war is one place where there is no room for photoshop.  I want to see what was in front of the lens, and that's it.  Altering in that instance, even if well intentioned, has too much power to distort the situation and is too likely to be used for propaganda and other nefarious purposes.

Now, as a portrait photographer, I'm in the propaganda business. My job is not just to capture the subject in front of me, but to convey beauty, or power, or grace, or strength, or frailty, or a hundred other adjectives. So where is my line supposed to be?  I can remove a wrinkle or blemish  and still sleep at night.  And there are plenty of times that I'll clone out a leaf of a plant that's distractingly coming into frame.

But here's the thing that's got me thinking. Say I'm shooting for Newsweek; A portrait of a guy out on the street, normal fare. Now, if I want to make the subject look lonely out there (let's say he just got divorced and it was part of the story) and in the background a random person walked into the perfect frame, am I allowed to photoshop them out?  I'm shooting for a 'news' magazine, yes, but my portrait isn't exactly news or current events, it's a photo of a guy on the street.  What's my obligation to reality in a situation like this.

I haven't really come up with an answer yet, and I'm sure the line could sit anywhere inside a big gray area, but it's an interesting question.  You could claim that I've got to use the image as is, but we all play with contrast and saturation.  Pixels are never just pixels.  Plus what if I did something like blur out a photo of the guys family on his desk for security reasons?  Is that ok?

Tough stuff.  So I thought I'd open it up to discussion.