Editing photos – is that cheating?

editing 1
Documented reproduction of red fox at Galthögen, Skåpafors 2008 (photo: Ellington). No editing. Which of these two photos is the most authentic?

editing 2
Chilean flamingo, Morups Tånge, Sweden, jan 1, 1967 (photo: Ellington). Darkroom processing by Bo Claesson, Varberg. Scanned to digital format 2007. Cropped and edited in Iphoto [contrast: +95; definition + 98; high tones +100; shadows +99] . The picture was published at Artportalen as documentation of a rare species.
This post will not be precisely about enjoyment or pleasure, but rather about the means for aesthetic pleasure that photographers have at their disposal. You who are interested in photo know that many people ask to what extent editing is associated with cheating. Is there cheating? I would like to discuss that today.

When I pose the question to a reliable nature photographer like John Jonasson at Fotobloggarna, he answers that of course it’s ok to edit. And he adds that what he does is usually to correct the camera’s way of seeing. This is to make the image more consistent with the way the human eye perceives reality.

Thus, the camera registers in one way and the human eye in another. And I will return to this. But now I want to look at an example where a photographer is actually proven to have cheated and also apologized for it.

The case in question is Terje Hellesö, who received the award ”Nature Photographer of the Year” in 2010 by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.

His images had appeared in several different contexts. First, an artistic, in which the purpose was to create nature images with an aesthetic value. Second, in a news context, where his images came to serve as documentation of rare species and their occurrence. In addition, his pictures occurred in the context where he, as said, was entitled Nature Photographer of the Year 2010. His distinction between these different contexts where his images could occur was unclear. This was what made the cheating allegations relevant.

In a discussion on the Hunters Association’s blog, the authenticity of the pictures was questioned. With the result that the photographer first denied all cheating, but later published a confession and also apologized. The result was that the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency eventually took back the title of Nature Photographer of the Year.

So wherein did his cheating consist? Not in the artistic editing itself. It consisted in the fact that he allowed artistic images to be used as news material. His editing also became cheating when he accepted the award without reporting how the images were created.

As news material in the local press, the images caused misconceptions in Jönköping about the presence of lynx and racoon dog in the area. His work as a nature photographer was also regarded as disqualified by the fact that he had retrieved image material online and pasted into some of his published pictures.

Åsa Brorsson, photographer, makes it quite clear how to proceed with editing in a short article in the newspaper Norra Skåne, when she says:

”… all is allowed as long as you do not lie about your image. Is it manipulated in any way, say it then. If the result is a good / artistic / beautiful / interesting picture, it does not matter. But do not pretend that your image is something it’s not. ”

Simple, isn’t it? If you let your picture be used to prove the presence of wild racoon dogs in the Mullsjö area while the picture is taken in a completely different place, then it is of course cheating. On the other hand, if you paste together pictures to show the species characteristics of the racoon dog, it is acceptable as long as you report how it was done, if needed. And when is it needed? For example, if you are appointed an award, or if you publish your picture in a context where its purpose could be misunderstood.

Using other people’s pictures requires of course the pemission of the photographers first of all. Secondly, the same rules apply to the use of photos as to any other information in, for example, academic research – you declare your sources and you define how you will use them.

So, is there cheating in the world of photography today? Yes, there is! But the cheat is not in the editing itself but in how the editing is acknowledged and in how the images are used.

If you have any comments that can further clarify how to deal with pictures you want to publish please feel free to comment or send your own article on the subject – which we would like to publish as guest post.


* Footnote: Terje Hellesö has commented that he never registered as a candidate for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency award, but was given it as an award. At his request, I have corrected the post so that this should be clear. Ellington


(The posts linked below are all written in Swedish)

Discussion at Jägarbloggen about the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency’s award for the year’s Nature Photographer 2010.

Swedish Picture Suppliers Association : Fake of the Year 2011

Terje Hellesö: ”Förlåt”

Åsa Brorsson in Northern Skåne: ”Can you cheat?”

Terje Hellesö today: Tjäder in Kolmården


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