DoD Visual Information Ethics

(From Chapter 8 of the DoD Visual Information Style Guide [VISG], Sept. 25, 2017)

The Department of Defense (DoD), primarily DoD military, civilian and contractor personnel who produce, edit or release visual information (VI), must maintain complete credibility when presenting DoD VI as fact. All personnel involved in the creation of DoD VI shall ensure it meets or exceeds the highest ethical standards followed by the DoD and the news industry.

As visual information technology continues to advance, it is imperative DoD photographers maintain integrity by presenting VI accurately depicting a scene and subject as originally recorded by the camera. Photographers must acknowledge any manipulations beyond standard preparation of visual information for publication (e.g., other than basic correction of color, brightness and contrast, and judicious cropping that does not alter the context or meaning of the camera original).

DoD Instruction 5040.02, Enclosure 10, Section 4 states, in part, “The undisclosed modification or enhancement of official DoD imagery by persons acting for or on behalf of the DoD is prohibited. Any and all image modification or enhancement for any purpose must be disclosed in the caption data so that the image does not mislead or deceive.”

In this chapter, the differences between photos, photo illustrations and prohibited alterations will be outlined. Note the only two permissible categories for still photography in caption credits are ‘photo’ and ‘photo illustration’ (See Chapter 3 of the VISG, under Photographer's Credit).


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Security blur

(Note: This photo was cropped to highlight the security blurring)

{caption text.} (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Gitte Schirrmacher) (This photo has been altered for security purposes by blurring out identification badges.)

Department of Defense VI documentation is defined in DoD Instruction 5040.02 as “Imagery depicting actual events, activities, phenomena, places, or people, recorded primarily to create a record of the subject matter.”

In most cases, this refers to visual documentation of uncontrolled action, such as military training and operations in progress, in which the photographer has no bearing on the events around him/her.

However, it can also refer to certain instances of controlled action, such as official portraits, or personnel posing for a photograph during a formal event, such as a change of command or military ball. In those instances, the photographer may offer basic direction to the subjects of the image, such as where to stand.

For a given image to be labeled as a photo, only the most minimal and basic corrections as described above are permitted. Standard color and contrast adjustments for publication purposes do not need to be disclosed.

EXCEPTION: Occasionally, a photo or video will show Personally Identifiable Information (PII), such as identification tags or access badges, or other sensitive items. It is permissible to obscure such information using digital means, as long as it is made clear within the photo or video caption that portions of the image were blurred for security or privacy concerns. See above example.

Photo illustrations

Superimposed elements

{caption text.} (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Senior Airman John Bainter) (An image of the American flag was added into this photo)

Photo illustrations are images that have been manipulated beyond minimal corrections as described above, or were entirely staged by a photographer. Such visual information can be used with proper disclosure – for aesthetic, creative, artistic or other purposes such as highlighting a theme or illustrating a feature story.

Photo illustrations also include images that have been retouched, filtered or are manipulated in any other way. Images that are stitched together or contain cutouts, collages, panoramas, vignetting, multiple exposures (including High Dynamic Range techniques) or any added text or graphics are considered photo illustrations. The digital movement, addition or subtraction of any content or elements within an image used for illustrative purposes must be fully disclosed. Computer-generated artwork is always considered a photo illustration.

The conversion of an original color photograph or video to black-and-white, or to isolate one color, before submission to DVIDS or DIMOC, requires disclosure as an illustration. Similarly, cropping a photo in such a way as to alter the original context of what was captured should be disclosed. Standard, judicious cropping to remove irrelevant background space is permitted without disclosure.

Using a filter in any type of electronic editing application to make an image appear blurred, solarized, embossed, or resemble, for example, sepia-tone, a painting, or having been taken on film likewise makes it a photo illustration requiring disclosure.

Photos or video that was staged or made use of props for illustrative purposes would also be considered a photo illustration.

The responsibility lies with the photographer — and anyone else involved in the processing of an image — to disclose manipulations above and beyond standard color adjustments.

Rule of thumb: If you think you need to disclose manipulation techniques used on an image, do so.

In short, if an image has been manipulated above and beyond basic color corrections, it must be labeled as such in the caption block, after the caption credit, using plain language, as shown in the examples here.

NOTE: The disclosure also should appear in the Release Instructions field of the metadata (see VISG Chapter 5). This demonstrates the releasing authority is aware of the modifications to the image being sent to DIMOC.

Prohibited alterations

The unit flag behind the subject was changed using software, leaving unnatural lighting and lasso marks around the subject's hair, as well as an unnatural intersection with the U.S. flag at left.  

Any DoD photo or video that is altered to deliberately mislead or deceive the U.S. Government, DoD personnel, the media or the American people is strictly prohibited.

DoD Instruction 5040.02, Enclosure 10, Section 1 states, “The alteration of official DoD imagery by persons acting for or on behalf of the DoD is prohibited. Prohibited alterations include the addition, removal, or changing of photographic details. Examples of prohibited alteration include the addition, changing, or removing of individuals, equipment, scenery, or the unrealistic changing of color or light. Certain modifications or enhancements to official DoD imagery are permitted in accordance with section 4 of this enclosure.”

There have been several notable cases of altered DoD photos being submitted to public-facing websites and media outlets and presented as fact, resulting in one major news outlet temporarily banning all DoD-produced visual information from their wire services. Such prohibited alterations included changes to the background behind the subject, rank insignia, and uniform name tapes, as well as copying and pasting one person’s head on another person’s body, and removing people from an image.

In short, alterations intended to present or portray something different than the reality and context of the original image constitutes a visual lie, and is a serious threat to the credibility and trustworthiness of the DoD, the military services and the DoD Visual Information community.

Reference: DoDI 5040.02, Enclosure 10

Further reading: National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics (external link)