Upon seeing James Nacthwey's newly released photos from 9/11's Ground Zero, I was stuck by how heavily manipulated they appear.


It's as if Hollywood special effect talent were called in to transform the photos for use in promoting the latest disaster blockbuster. "How can he get away with this?", I wondered. As a documentary photographer myself, with a NY Times cover photo to my credit, I would lose my job if I edited my photos so heavily.

The Associated Press doesn't even let you remove red eye:
"Changes in density, contrast, color and saturation levels that substantially alter the original scene are not acceptable. Backgrounds should not be digitally blurred or eliminated by burning down or by aggressive toning. The removal of “red eye” from photographs is not permissible.... "

REUTERS goes even further. Their rules even tell you what sharpening settings to use.

-No excessive lightening, darkening or blurring of the image. (thus misleading the viewer by disguising certain elements of an image)
-No excessive colour manipulation. (thus dramatically changing the original lighting conditions of an image)
-Pictures may then be sharpened by 300% at a radius of 0.3, threshold 0, in Photoshop.
-No selective area sharpening should be done.

Additions or deletions to image
Cloning & Healing tool (except dust)
Airbrush, brush, paint
Selective area sharpening
Excessive lightening/darkening
Excessive colour tone change
Auto levels
Eraser tool
Quick Mask
In-camera sharpening
In-camera saturation styles

more here:

I wonder how Nachtwey gets away with this stuff. I guess the photo editors consider him more of an art photographer than a documentary photographer or photojournalist, but why not then label his photos as such? It's often said in the fashion photography world, that behind every great photographer is a great retoucher. I wonder how many of Nachtwey's many fans realize how great a role post-prodution plays in the images he produces.

ADDED 9/13/2011
I've leaving the original text above, since that is what people have commented on. But I'm adding this note because I think some of my words above are unfair.

Since 10 years have lapsed, its unfair to consider these photos "news" or to hold them to the same standards. However in my personal opinion, the retouching cheapens them to some extent. Some of the images come across feeling like a Hollywood movie poster or promo for a first-responder video game. That's just my opinion on the aesthetics. It's largely a matter of taste, but it was inappropriate to frame it as a matter of journalistic integrity.

The comparisons may still be interesting simply for the sake of seeing a bit of the "wizard behind the curtain" as not everyone is aware the role post-production plays in some photographer's style or able to easily spot and identity such retouching.
James Natchtwey's 9/11 THEN and NOW
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