Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Revisiting the Ethics of Photo Editing

Many genealogy programs, both online and off-line, allow the incorporation of photos. In some cases photos can be incorporated into source documentation and in other programs the photos are simply added to a "media library." The proliferation of these online photographic collections raise some interesting issues which could be considered to be ethical in nature. I'm sure that it would surprise those who are uploading photos that there were any particular ethical considerations involved in the process. But these issues do arise out of the need to maintain some level of historical integrity.

I am sure, that the same genealogists who would be appalled if someone changed their ancestors name, date associated with the ancestor or some other fact are completely unaware of the issues involved in uploading incomplete, misleading and otherwise altered images. I will begin to illustrate this point with a series of photos from an online photographic database associated with the genealogy program. I am not identifying the program because I find exactly the same photos in different online programs. All of the following photographs are of the same individual and taken from the same database program.

Photo No. 1

Photo No. 2

Photo No. 3

Photo No. 4

Photo No. 5
 It seems apparent to me, that all five of these photos are copies from the same original. Although, it may be difficult to tell in photo number three whether or not it is the same photo, it certainly appears to be. The images very in the amount of cropping and in the resolution. Now here is an interesting question. What does the researcher do if the only photograph available is apparently unacceptable quality such as photo number two above? It is also extremely likely that the genealogists who uploaded the variations of photo number five were entirely unaware of the existence of the original photograph.

Despite any underlying issues, at some point in time, likely before these images were available to be uploaded onto the Internet, someone decided to crop the image identified as number five to include only a headshot of George Jarvis.

Looking at photograph number five, there is certainly a great deal more information conveyed by this photograph than any of the others. By cropping out George's wife, Ann Prior Jarvis, and by eliminating the background, much of the original information is lost. Lost information includes includes the association between George Jarvis and his wife and the possibility of determining the exact location of the photograph from the house in the background.

What is certain is that the person who first cropped the photograph had access to the original. It is also entirely possible that the person who did this thought absolutely nothing was wrong with the process and in fact felt that creating a headshot was desirable. It is unlikely that the individual gave a second thought to the entire process but from a historical point of view, much of the information in the original photograph would have been lost had the original photograph not survived. Perhaps cropping the photo is justified by keeping both photographs. On the other hand, had a copy of the photograph labeled as number five not been preserved, there would be no way to tell that the other photographs have been altered.

The problem of preserving the venue and as much of the circumstances of the photo is possible are clearly and illustrated by photo number four. Although, the alteration of the photo seems to be minimal and even though the association of George Jarvis and his wife are preserved, the possibility of identifying the location of the photograph from the background has been destroyed.

In the context of genealogical research, the most complete and most on altered photograph should always be used as an attachment to the genealogical record. If the original photograph is unavailable and the researcher desires to use a copy, then the fact that the image is a copy should be clearly noted along with the source where the copy was obtained. This is particularly true when researchers copy photographs from printed books such as surname books relating the history of a family. As much is possible, any original photograph should be preserved as exactly as possible in its original state. If the photograph is scanned the scan should be as faithful to the original as possible. If the researcher deems it necessary to alter the original photograph, then the original photograph should always be kept and made available. Merely because the tools exist to easily make such changes, the existence of the tools do not create an open mandate to make such changes.


  1. Well done. Would that the same principles of exactness be followed in recording vital events.

  2. Your points are well taken; however, sometimes all that exists of the original photo is a little cropped square or half a photo because a husband or father was literally cut off.

    1. The ethical issue applies to the first person who cut or altered the original photograph. Of course, photos all lie because the photographer chooses what to show and what not to show.

  3. This is very interesting, James. My husband complained when I would "scrapbook" and crop photos to fit on the page, saying I was cutting out the backgrounds. Now I truly understand, because I want to see the backgrounds of old photos when trying to figure out where they were taken. If I electronically crop a photo, I keep the original name and add the word "crop" to the name.