Just Say No To Unethical Photo Edits

Article 4 min
Watch different tactics to say no to a superior if asked to make edits outside of what the policy allows.

As a visual information specialist, you may find yourself in situations where you are being asked to alter a photo. According to DoDI 5040.02, there are only eight allowable alterations for a photograph: color, balancing, de-noising, spotting and dusting, dodging, contrast, sharpening, cropping and burning.

So what happens when the changes go beyond policy? In this video, we'll look at different scenarios you may find yourself in and tactics you can practice.

Where Does the Trouble Start?

It starts with a simple request between the photographer and subject; "Just make me look good!" But what sounds straightforward at first can slide into alterations that violate ethical standards.

There is a policy to guide and protect you, but there may still be situations where you need to explain what is and isn't allowed.

Meet Airman Sutherland. She's fairly new to the command and eager to make a good impression. When her commanding officer asks her to brighten up a command photo, she checks DoDI 5040.02 on ethical photo manipulation. Is this permissible?

Yes! Airman Sutherland is in the clear to make this change.

How Can You Say No?

But what if she is asked to brighten her superior's teeth, which is not permissible? Always start by referring your superior back to the policy, and restate what you can and cannot do. Airman Sutherland can say, "I'm sorry, sir. The policy allows me to brighten up the lighting in the photo, but I cannot change your physical appearance."

What happens when you say yes to that kind of photo manipulation? In this extreme example below, a photo was heavily manipulated to remove the background and rank insignia. This resulted in a year-long ban for the entire DoD from the Associated Press. Make your superiors aware that while you want to help, the policy must guide you both.

The photo on the right was badly and very obviously manipulated. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
side-by-side photos of a military woman with an office background and the same image badly altered by including the American flag.
The photo on the right was badly and very obviously manipulated.
VIRIN: 220606-D-ZW071-1002

Make It Clear You Can't Override Policy

Let's look at another example. Sergeant Owens has years of experience in the PA shop and generally has no trouble saying no. A superior is pressing for an Adobe Photoshop edit to make a colleague look slimmer and smudge out a blemish. What can Sgt. Owens say?

Restating the policy may not be enough. Try making it clear that you have no path forward. "Sir, the policy on ethical manipulation does not give me a path to meet this request and I do not have the authority to override the policy."

The policy should give you the confidence to deny the request and the comfort of knowing you're doing the right thing. If you still feel pressured, you have the option to escalate to the legal office.

What if Your Superior Wants Something Like This?

Intent for use matters. This is a graphic illustration and cannot be labeled or presented as a photograph. Photo by DINFOS PAVILION Team
Sgt. Alquimides Merced, a Stryker Systems Mechanic assigned to Delta Forward Support Troop, 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, stands for a photograph in 2nd Sqdn., 1st Cav. Reg. motor pool maintenance bay and provides his interpretation of what it means to place people first at Fort Carson, Colorado, Dec. 3, 2020. (U.S. Army photo illustration by Capt. Daniel Parker)
Intent for use matters. This is a graphic illustration and cannot be labeled or presented as a photograph.
VIRIN: 201203-A-UQ561-0002

Before you say no, there are some follow-up questions you will need to ask to determine if they need an illustration or a photo. Ask your superior what the intent for use is. For example, is it for

  • A bio pic?
  • A photograph for the media?
  • A flyer?

Since this example is an illustration, it cannot be presented as a photograph. Illustrations need to be identified as such in the byline or metadata. Try saying, "If this graphic was presented as a photograph without indication that it's an illustration, it would violate the rules of ethical photograph alterations and we would both be in trouble."

Saying No Is Hard, but Necessary

These are some common scenarios but certainly not all the ways you might be asked to manipulate a photograph. The rules stated by the policy are clear and explicit and exist to protect you and your superiors. Let the policy do the uncomfortable work of saying "NO."

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