Lessons from the Nat Geo eclipse photo dustup

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Ken Geiger is catching plenty of praise — and heat — for a stunning image of the recent solar eclipse he posted on Instagram. Geiger, a freelance photographer and former deputy director of photography at National Geographic, drew more than 15,000 "likes" for a black-and-white version of the image on his Instagram page; the Nat Geo Instagram page raked in more than 2 million.

But, as sharp-eyed readers and fellow photojournalists point out, the image could not have been made as it appears. The sunrise over the mountain was facing west, but the eclipse was in a different direction, and it never appeared so large compared to the mountains. National Geographic explained that the image was a composite of two frames when it posted a full-color version to its Instagram:

Several photographers were critical of the image and said NatGeo and Geiger should be clearer that the image was fantasy. National Press Photographers Association president Melissa Lyttle raised the issue on her Facebook page Wednesday. Contacted by Poynter, she told us:

 

 

 

 

Ken Geiger’s image of Grand Tetons and the eclipse is beautiful.

Is it art? A composite? Photoshop? Multiple exposures, shot with different lenses in different directions at different times of day on two different frames? An impossible scene? I suppose “illustration" is the best description. Whatever it is, it’s gorgeous, but it's certainly not photojournalism. It's not reality, but the artist defines it as art and intends it to transcend reality.

Photojournalists have a narrower box where we work, bound by self-imposed ethics. This image would violate a couple of those set forth in the NPPA Code of Ethics. The biggest challenge comes to this standard: Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

But this isn’t photojournalism.

For me the bigger questions are, does National Geographic magazine hold itself to those standards? Or, is it merely a magazine with pretty pictures and illustrations? Does it intend to promote high-quality visual journalism or does it vacillate somewhere between the two worlds?

When a reputable magazine publishes a questionable image that needs explanation, simply divulging that information would alleviate a lot of the questions and concerns. Former photojournalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Ken Geiger said he never intended the image to be photojournalism, so when a magazine that hires many accomplished photojournalists publishes an image like this without explanation, it muddies the waters.

The real problem to me is the lack of transparency. At first, the National Geographic didn’t note the illustration approach in their online captions. They have since added this editor’s note on nationalgeographic.com “This image is a composite of two photographs: a multiple-exposure photo of the eclipse and a photo of the Tetons.” Geiger also later offered a detailed explanation in the comments section of his Instagram feed.

It’s hard enough in this age of "fake news” to suss out what is real. Without a forthcoming explanation, actions such as these continue to erode the public’s trust in images. Being open and honest about the process, and transparent from the get-go, could also have made this a non-issue.

For his part, Geiger makes no secret of the technique he used, and when he was asked, he told his Instagram followers exactly how he created the image:

Hey everyone, after reading some of the comments, I offer my apologies to those who thought this was a scene you could witness in a single moment. It was not my intent to mislead anyone, this image is an illustration. An effort to bring two grand elements of nature, from the same location, into one frame, to compress time, to create something to excite your eye and imagination. I used 70mm lens, eclipse morning, facing west to photograph sunrise on the Tetons. Then later in the day with a 400mm lens, I pointed the camera almost overhead, with the camera set to shoot 5 images on one frame, to make the eclipse sequence. I had meant to shoot this all in one frame, 6 multiple exposures, but I forgot to change the camera to not go to sleep, when it did, I lost my multi-exposure. So I reset for 5 exposures on the eclipse, all five phases of the eclipse are on one RAW frame. Thus I has to sandwich the sunrise image into the final eclipse sequence. I used the internal viewfinder grid to evenly space out the sequence.

 

"People who read my personal Instagram page would know that I post with minimalistic captions, like 'Grand Tetons and eclipse,'" Geiger told Poynter. "But when I posted on the NatGeo Instagram page my mindset kicked in that I better be more forthcoming and explain how I did this."

Initially, National Geographic's website was not as clear as Geiger's Instagram cutline. NatGeo.com included the Geiger image in a collection of eclipse images with the cutline, "A compilation image of the phases of the eclipse over the Teton Range." They later added an editor's note, saying: "this image is a composite of two photographs: a multiple-exposure photo of the eclipse and a photo of the Tetons."

Ann Day, a spokesperson for National Geographic, told Poynter that the magazine does not condone manipulation of documentary photography.

"In instances where we publish composite photos, we aim to clearly indicate how the photo is created," she said. "In the case of this particular photo, we have updated the caption on our website to more clearly define the technique used in creating the image."

This case is not an egregious example of a faked photograph. It is not, as some photojournalist friends have said to me this morning, "the Pyramids all over again." A reasonable reader knows by looking at the image that some level of photo wizardry is at work because of the time-lapse nature of the image.

Geiger's caption describing the image as a composite is useful, but, in my estimation, could have gone further. It could have included the explanation that the sun and moon didn't look like that over the Tetons. I would have enjoyed seeing his composite illustration coupled with another image of the five exposures he captured so we could see what he did. It would have been a teaching lesson on how to compose a pretty picture, even if it is not real. (There are copious collections of such remarkable fake eclipse photos around the web.)

I also suspect some professors will be using this illustration to raise the question of whether there is some lower standard for truthfulness on social networks like Instagram. My answer? Of course not. Everything a news organization publishes on any platform should conform to the same standards of truthfulness and accuracy. When a journalism organization publishes something on any platform that does not conform to its usual standards against manipulation, the publication should go way out of the way to explain what it did, how it did it and why it chose to publish something that is not real.

Geiger said he was not on assignment for NatGeo when he captured the photo. He told us that he was in Wyoming at a friend's house and decided to shoot some pictures.

"I also didn't think anybody would be confused," he said. "Everybody knows the eclipse doesn't happen in an arch. It is beyond my imagination that anyone would think it was real. It just didn't occur to me."

Ken Geiger and National Geographic have captured so many profound images that seem too astonishing to be real — but they are. They don’t want to ever have readers see a picture and feel the need to ask, “Is that real?"

Every news organization can take a lesson from this dustup. Ask: Are we doing enough to explain how we do our work? It is a good time to think over the ways we skirt full disclosure, the way local TV uses "as-live" videos to trick viewers into thinking a reporter is live on the air when they aren't.  There are plenty of people who accuse dutiful journalists of producing "fake news." We shouldn't do anything that gives oxygen to those incendiary accusations.

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