Just a slight change... is it lying?

What do you consider lying? Are little white lies okay when you are "protecting" a friend's feelings? Doing an assignment for school I pondered this question when it comes to unethical photojournalism. I found numerous, horrendous photos from the "Napalm girl" to the "Starving Sudanese child" and the drowned five year old boy. I don't link to those because I think even those photos won Pulitzer prizes... maybe not the dead boy's photo, I think it was up for a Pulitzer.

Public domain photo from Library of Congress
Public domain photo from Library of Congress
Close ups and wide angles can tell two hugely different stories, yet, be the same subject matter. These photos were taken by the same photographer, Dorothea Lange; and taken in 1936. The then Resettlement Administration had the job of resettling farmers off 100,000,000 acres of worn out, dust bowl land into settlements. There were a series of photographers by several photographers used by the Resettlement Administration to show the necessity to help these poor people. California didn’t want the thousands of poor farmers being removed to the state. So photos were used to soften the hearts of the state government. The first photo was used but retouched. The second photo was buried in archives and unused by the Administration.

The first photo is the close up and depicts a poor mother, surrounded by her children but also depicts, with the application of a little money the family could survive easily. Her expression is one of contemplation rather than despair.

The second photo is the wide angle showing what desperate straits the family is living in; and that it will take much more than a few dollars to help this family survive. The squalor seems insurmountable. The family is flanked by a tattered lean-to, meager belongings in a broken trunks, and an empty plate on another trunk, surrounded by empty fields.

Both photos are ethical, and taken in an ethical manner. However, the use of the first retouched photo to tell a deceptive story is unethical. In the retouched photo, the woman has a brighter face, and there are highlights in the children’s hair. This photo represents hope. The second photo tells the whole truth and represents despair which did not tell the story the Resettlement Administration wanted to tell so it was buried in archives.

The ethical dilemma is using a retouched photograph to sell a story to persuade a group of people into a certain action. Kant would say, this goes against his categorical imperative, in universalizability, and using the family as a means to an end. He would also say that this may be a little lie, it is still a lie. Exhibiting truth is what gives credibility, and that is all that journalists have. The public hates to be lied to. Big lie, little lie, important or trivial, offering anything but the truth is lying.
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