Doctoring Photos for Religious Reasons

The whole media storm over the doctored photo of the National Security Team in the Situation Room (being briefed with the president and vice president on the Osama Bin Laden raid) has raised many questions and additional controversy.

Yesterday, I took part in an ad hoc Facebook forum moderated by journalist Steven I. Weiss that centered on the ethics of altering photographs. The interesting discussion touched on several aspects of the story including whether it is ever ethical to alter a photo. In my opinion, this is a “gut decision.” That is to say, touching up a photo to improve the lighting or to remove a few blemishes from a person’s face is acceptable. However, airbrushing an ex-girlfriend out of a group photo might feel good, but it alters the record of reality.

One of the most iconic photos of the 20th century is from the Kent State shootings. The photo was altered by removing a post that otherwise would have seemed to be emanating from the screaming woman’s head. This didn’t change the historical record of the event.

In conversations about the two Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) newspapers that airbrushed Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason from the now famous photo, I tried to shift the focus from the Jewish religious issues of modesty to the question of photographic integrity. Many people thought I was intentionally throwing mud at the ultra-right wing of the Jewish world, when in fact I was drawing attention to the problem of doctored photographs. The two examples I’ve raised have been the doctored photos of Oprah Winfrey on the cover TV Guide and Katie Couric’s magical weight loss thanks to Photoshop. (The photo of Oprah is actually her face on Ann Margaret’s 1979 body.) Both of these photos are misleading to the public.

I fully believe that these ultra-Orthodox newspapers have the right to determine which photographs they use to accompany their articles. I disagree, of course, that photos of women and girls are too immodest to be shown, but these papers do have this right. However, altering photos as they often do is unethical. And it’s not only a policy on photographs. In 2008, when Tzipi Livni was close to becoming Israel’s first female prime minister since Golda Meir, ultra-Orthodox newspapers not only refused to print photos of her, they also wouldn’t print her full name. “We might write ‘Mrs. T. Livni’ or just ‘Mrs. Livni,’ but the name Tzipi is too familiar. It is not acceptable to address a woman using her first name, especially when she goes by a nickname,” a senior editor at Hamodia said.
For many Haredi Jews these newspapers are the only form of news they receive. They don’t have televisions in their homes and Internet use is forbidden. To these communities, the papers become the historical record. The iconic of photo in the Situation Room for the Bin Laden briefing will be around forever in millions of formats. However, photos that are only printed in these Haredi newspapers really will become historical documents and records of past events. Doctoring them will forever change how future generations will recall their community’s history and this misrepresentation of reality is deceitful.
This is a delicate issue and it’s important to know the facts. There have been many examples of misinformation surrounding this story. I’ve received irate phone calls from people who actually think that I was the one who removed Hillary Clinton from the photo. The Jewish Week, where I originally wrote about this, has been accused of being the newspaper that doctored the photo. Some people have even accused me of being a self-hating Jew (I’m not) for breaking the story (I didn’t) simply to criticize the Orthodox. While I don’t agree with the way women are perceived or treated in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world, I don’t occupy my time criticizing them. However, I also don’t believe that I must remain silent about my feelings based on the principle that any critique of other Jews is damaging to the entire faith.
Here are some other examples of how the ultra-Orthodox have doctored images based on their interpretation of the laws of modesty, including replacing a woman with a gnome in an Independence Day billboard recently. As always, leave a comment to join me in this interesting conversation.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Putting Israel in the Best Light

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The NY Jewish Week


Yesterday’s news was focused on photo editing. A national conversation on the ethics of doctoring photos was kicked off when a Brooklyn-based Hasidic Yiddish language newspaper used Photoshop to airbrush out two prominent women — Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason — from an iconic photo released by the White House. More than a rant on the extremes to which the ultra-Orthodox will go to keep photos of women from the pages of their newspapers, what I find most interesting is the question of when it is appropriate to alter a photograph.

But rather than presenting all the instances when one might alter a photograph and arguing that there are times when it’s acceptable to touch up a photo without misrepresenting the historical record, I thought that in honor of Israel Independence day I would focus on one artist who alters photos to create beautiful art that pays tribute to Israel’s cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv.

Israeli artist Ron Shoshani produces images of Tel Aviv and other contemporary scenes from Israel using the latest technology. Producing such photographs in the past with the use of high-end filters and processing was too expensive, he says. Today, Shoshani is able to create digital photo manipulations in just minutes by applying different post-production filters to his images.

After shooting between 500-700 photographs at each location with an array of different angles, Shoshani then experiments with different lighting and filtering effects that can be applied to all the photographs through batch filer processing. A technique that once took days now only takes him a couple hours.

The artist developed a unique process that consists of a mix of stand alone digital manipulation tools, commercial digital retouch applications and layered textures that have created a unique “signature” of his works that is being recognized around the world.

When I asked Shoshani why he chose Tel Aviv as the subject of most of his photography he gave me two answers. First, he explained, “My family, as pioneers, came to Tel Aviv around 100 years ago and established their life and business in the city. I was born and raised in Tel Aviv as well, and although I was traveling around the world a lot, as a Jew, Tel Aviv is where my heart is. I love the city… this is the ‘Big Apple’ of every Jewish person.” He also has chosen Tel-Aviv as the main focus of his photography as an effort to create iconic photos of the city and to present Tel Aviv like every other international, modern and cosmopolitan city.

Known on the Web as “Ronsho,” Shoshani’s photo collection has been receiving much attention. His photos are displayed and available for sale throughout the Web at such sites as Flickr and Red Bubble. He’s frequently asked to have his photos represent Israel in the media and Time Out Tel Aviv magazine used one of his Tel Aviv skyline photos for its cover story about Tel Aviv.

He explains, “When people see the city the way it was presented on the cover of a magazine, it’s a perception change. It contradicts the regular daily news in which they’ve been hearing about Israel. It makes people think ‘I wanna’ be there. I didn’t know that Israel looked like this.’ With this in mind, the strong power of a visual is being translated into a different mindset.”

So, this week when so many are chastising a newspaper for altering a photo in a negative way, let’s recognize Ron Shoshani who is altering photos with artistic talent to represent Israel in the best light (and filter). Happy 63rd year of independence to Israel!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Another Altered Photo in Jewish Newspaper

While everyone is talking about the altered photo with Hillary Clinton in the Haredi newspaper Der Zeitung, there have been other examples of these ultra-Orthodox newspapers editing photographs to suit their purpose.

TIME Magazine reported on a poorly doctored photo of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet from 2009 in the Israeli newspaper Yated Neeman. In the photo, two female Cabinet members, Limor Livnat and Sofa Landver, are replaced with men’s faces.

The faces belong to ministers Ariel Atias and Moshe Kachlon, who in the original photograph can be seen toward the periphery of the group (standing, second from left and second from right). As TIME explains, “In Yated Neeman‘s version of the image, they have been cropped out. Much of the newspaper’s readership consists of ultra-Orthodox readers who do not think it proper for women to serve in the government.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Hillary Clinton Removed from Iconic Photo by Hasidic Newspaper

A big hat-tip to Failed Messiah (who gave a hat-tip to Critical Minyan) for breaking the news that an Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish newspaper, Der Tzitung, has determined that the photo of top U.S. leaders receiving an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden was too scandalous.
What was so offensive about the image? U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the photo and, based on good intel, the editor of Der Tzitung discovered that she is a woman. The Hasidic newspaper will not intentionally include any images of women in the paper because it could be considered sexually suggestive. The iconic photo shows President Obama, Vice President Biden, and members of the U.S. National Security Team in the Situation Room of the White House. Secretary of State Clinton, wearing a long-sleeved suit jacket, sits with her hand over her mouth. I’m not sure how Der Tzitung determined this was a racy photo. Perhaps they just don’t like the idea of a woman with that much political power.
Der Tzitung Photophopped Hillary Clinton out of the photo, thereby changing history. To my mind, this act of censorship is actually a violation of the Jewish legal principle of g’neivat da’at (deceit). I wrote about this subject a year ago following the Flotilla debacle in Israeli waters outside Gaza when the Reuters news agency doctored photos that it published by removing weapons from individuals aboard the Mavi Marmara. The doctoring of photographs like this is referred to as “Fauxtograpphing.” I’m curious to hear how Der Tzitung responds to its attempt to remove Hillary Clinton from this iconic photo and thereby from this historic event.
This official photograph was released from the White House and includes the following disclaimer after the caption: “This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.”
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller