The line between acceptable and unacceptable in 'improving' photographs has become increasingly difficult to draw, writes Anton Harber in Business Day.  In the wake of the furore around the Chinese use of digital technology to enhance the opening of the Olympic Games, perhaps SA should consider the technique wholesale when it comes to 2010.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

My quote of the week comes from the representative for L’Oréal South Africa, Celeste Tema, denying that they lightened the skins of some of the models in their advertisements. “When we airbrush,” she said, “we make sure the image is an honest reflection of the (subject).”

Seldom have I seen such a direct admission that the line between reality and the virtual world is so blurred that we can’t see it any more. We changed the image, she is saying, but we did it honestly. If you understand that, you are a lot smarter than me.

The rule for photojournalism used to be quite clear: don’t tamper with the image. It was never quite that simple though, as in the taking, developing and printing of a picture many decisions were made which altered the image. Somewhere, though, there was a line one could not cross in tampering with it, and one had to use one’s judgement to know where that was. It was permissible to reframe a picture, to highlight certain things and cut out other things, but it was not permissible to remove an item from or add one to an image.

It is a fine distinction Who is to say, after all, if making something brighter and something else lighter in a photograph does not make it more “real” ?
I think the distinction lay in what one’s purpose was: it is wrong to do it in a way intended to deceive or distort reality.

A few years ago, the Guardian of London got into trouble for airbrushing out of a photograph taken after a bombing a dismembered limb that was lying on the ground. They said they did it for reasons of taste, and there is little doubt they were unlikely to have used the picture with the limb in. There was no deception intended, you could argue.

On the other hand, a photographer who added smoke to dramatise a picture of an air attack in Lebanon last year was clearly trying to deceive. Stalin, of course, used to remove people from history entirely by taking them out of photographs. Digital technology now makes it so much easier to do this and not be detected.
And since skin colour on a screen is variable anyway, who is to say, in a purely technical sense, if someone’s skin colour has turned out lighter or darker. Maybe it was the lighting, maybe it was a camera setting, maybe it was the printing. Yet we know that in a make-up advert, skin tone is not left to chance. And it is clear from looking at some of the L’Oreal pictures that some models look distinctly lighter than they usually do.

All of this is relevant because the Chinese are being lambasted for having used digital creations to represent some of their fireworks at the opening of the Olympics because it was difficult and risky to film them live. They work for a year beforehand on the 55 seconds that were to be inserted on the night, and even introduced camera shake and smog to make seamless the move from “live” image to pre-produced digital image. And it was. Nobody noticed until a Beijing newspaper reported it.

I suspect the Chinese are bewildered at the fuss. These opening ceremonies are all artifice and spectacle, after all, intended to thrill and amaze, and impress us with the host country’s artistry and skill. Indeed, the opening ceremony succeeded admirably in this. Maybe there was more technological skill in what they did with computers, after all, since it was much more demanding and cutting edge than lighting a few firecrackers. For the Chinese, that would be old hat.
Besides, I think we can take a lesson here for 2010. It would save us a lot of money and anxiety to do an entirely digital World Cup opening ceremony. Things are a lot less likely to go wrong if all we have to do on the night is hit the “play” button on a computer.

For those foolish enough to go the stadium, we could put up a giant screen. And maybe we could even create an animated version of our team winning and run that on a parallel channel during the finals.

And everyone – the players, the coach, the managers, all the fans – could be black. Its called transformation.

* Harber heads the journalism programme at Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day 2on 0 August 2008