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The Tattoo That Was Too Perfect

By Andy Alexander

Photo illustration of Target-tattooed hipster. (Patterson Clark)

Accompanying a lead Post story today about hipsters seduced by the Columbia Heights Target store is an image of a woman with a magnificent tattoo.

Yet look closer and you may notice that it's a little too magnificent. The image of an intricate tattoo has been superimposed onto the photo of the woman, providing a mesmerizing pastiche of consumer goods that can be purchased at Target.

There was no intention to deceive. But was it clear enough to readers that the photo had been altered? Internally today, Post editors and staffers debated that question.

Manipulation of images is a big deal here and at other news organizations. The goal is to ensure that readers can trust what they see.

An incident last month shows how the line can be crossed. The July 8 Post carried two versions of a photo of the late Robert F. Kennedy. The photo on the front of the Style section, teasing an inside item, showed the part in Kennedy's hair on the left. But the inside photo had the part on the right.

That prompted a harsh “To Our Readers” note on July 25: “As many readers noticed, an image of Robert F. Kennedy on the front of the July 8 Style section was reversed, making it appear as though he parted his hair on the opposite side of how he normally wore it. This was an improper manipulation. The Post’s policy is to use the technique only for photo illustrations clearly labeled as such.”

But was today’s tattooed woman “clearly labeled as such”? Certainly not on The Post’s Web site, where there was no label at all. In the newspaper, the image ran with a small "photo illustration" tag, but editors and staffers debated whether that tag should have been larger, or whether there should have been a caption explaining what readers were viewing.

Some guidance is provided in The Post’s internal policies on manipulating photo images. A key section reads: “The use of technology to create new kinds of imagery is acceptable only where such use is clearly a work of fictional imagery. If a caption is necessary to explain that the content is not real, then we should not use the image.”

It goes on to say: “When the idea to alter a photo arises, take a reality check. Is this really a good idea? Will readers be confused?”

Today’s photo illustration may seem a small matter. But it’s good that it sparked a discussion and a reminder of The Post’s policy on manipulating images.

By Andy Alexander  | August 4, 2009; 5:55 PM ET
 
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Comments

Setting aside the non-tatoo tatoo, the article's concept itself was pretty stupid. SOP for the Style section.

Posted by: capsfan77 | August 4, 2009 7:38 PM | Report abuse

Why was the article printed in the first place? Why was the picture included? Because the woman is dishy? What is this, the New York Post?

Posted by: donnolo | August 4, 2009 7:52 PM | Report abuse

capsfan77, you are cynical and dismissive and worthless. The reconstitution of imagery is as crucial to journalistic integrity as ensuring the written word is accurate as reported. As for the Target tattoo, I think this is a contrived and exploitative attempt to court a youthful demographic wary of consumerism to begin with, and rightly so as marketing teams the world over attempt to manipulate hearts and minds in the name of profits. This reminds me of when Nike appropriated, ahem, MISappropriated Minor Threat cover art for a DC skate demo a few years back. Corporate America, please stop trying to convince me and my generation that you are "cool", and just sell the crap and move on. Don't try to cater to my "image", because a large part of who I am is based on my awareness that you're only in it for the money. So please, don't try to subvert my already well-established opinion of you and don't insult my intelligence by doing so. Just go on about your business, be up front about what you're selling, and perhaps try something genuinely endearing, like keeping some of the phthalates out.

Posted by: dokbionic | August 4, 2009 8:05 PM | Report abuse

Wow dokbionic.
Cynical, dismissive, AND worthless? No more or less so than your post, I'm afraid. On the other hand yours did have the added benefit of being both pretentious and poorly written. So you have that going for you.
I actually agree with capsfan, although I would have said vacuous.
Now that I know about the "tattoo" it occurs to me what a remarkable waste of time that was.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | August 4, 2009 8:27 PM | Report abuse

Why was the article printed in the first place? Why was the picture included? Because the woman is dishy? What is this, the New York Post?

Posted by: donnolo | August 4, 2009 7:52 PM | Report abuse

You know, if you'd actually bothered to READ the article you would have answered your own question. Visual fakery is as damaging to credible journalism as any other form of reporting based on unsubstantiated information. Call me crazy, but I think a discussion concerning journalistic credibility is a relevant and appropriate topic for a newspaper to consider. All this and one shameful tattoo notwithstanding, I feel it's also necessary to say, as a matter of credibility, that, dang, that lady sure is pretty.

Posted by: dokbionic | August 4, 2009 8:32 PM | Report abuse

Here is my plan for returning the American financial system to health. Besides cars, American love tattoos. Don't ask me why cuz I don't know but we have a economic crisis that needs to be solved.

Issue shares in tattoos and establish a New York Tattoo Market for trading these shares. This way anyone can own a tattoo without the risk of getting gangrene (no wait that is from piercings).... of getting hepatitis or the expense and pain of having the tattoo removed when you start to look like an old sailor or Tatum O'Neal. Then, you can insure these shares with tattoo swap defaults, say if the value of the tattoo is lowered due to damage in a bar fight or auto accident. What do you think? I think we are doomed, in the cosmic sense.

Posted by: katman13 | August 4, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

If not wanting your sense of self appropriated for the financial gain of a collective falls within your definition of pretentiousness, well then heap on the pretense. Excuse me for trying to express an opinion in a comprehensive manner. I'm sorry an ability to fully express oneself is a virtue that you don't possess or respect. Perhaps cynical, dismissive, and worthless are a harsh combination of words, but I read a snarky comment and attempted to express my disdain for both it's message and the way in which it was conveyed. Now I am going to do something that is not this for a very long time.

Posted by: dokbionic | August 4, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

Donnolo wasn't referring to the discussion of journalistic integrity, he was referring to the discussion of hipster shopping rituals. The article was not about visual fakery, in fact, as the ombudsman made abundantly clear, the visual fakery was not disclosed to webpage viewers at all. Had you bothered to READ donnolo's post intelligently, you would have known that.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | August 4, 2009 9:04 PM | Report abuse

"Manipulation of images is a big deal here and at other news organizations. The goal is to ensure that readers can trust what they see."

That trust ended with Dan Rather and his forged document.

If you had to ask.

Posted by: oracle2world | August 4, 2009 9:11 PM | Report abuse

dokbionic: good stuff.

Posted by: katman13 | August 4, 2009 9:17 PM | Report abuse

Donnolo wasn't referring to the discussion of journalistic integrity, he was referring to the discussion of hipster shopping rituals. The article was not about visual fakery, in fact, as the ombudsman made abundantly clear, the visual fakery was not disclosed to webpage viewers at all. Had you bothered to READ donnolo's post intelligently, you would have known that.

You're right. I apologize. I feel legitimately stupid for having said that. My words were borne of ignorance, overexposure to irrelevant internet snark, and a genuine disbelief that anyone would see any merit in publishing or reading an article on hipster shopping rituals. I apologize, but I totally stand by the stuff I said about consumerism and exploitation and stuff like that, TOTALLY. Now about that doing anything else....

Posted by: dokbionic | August 4, 2009 9:23 PM | Report abuse

katman: excellent application of the invisible hand. Market forces are fun!

Posted by: dokbionic | August 4, 2009 9:27 PM | Report abuse

I didn't catch the "photo illustration" tag at all when I read the (print) article--and I do think it matters. I was actually wondering why that large photo was there--but of course, the Post has been using plenty of large photos lately to take up space. And I agree with those who wondered about the purpose of the original article on hipsters shopping at Target. Here's another Monica Hesse waste of time, in which her "reporting" consists of choosing a fairly obvious topic and then walking around and getting random people to make obvious comments about the obvious topic. What's frightening is that that looks like real journalism in comparison to a front-page story about spousal thermostat battles. Oh, WashPost: You're testing my loyalty to its limits!

Posted by: ltwd | August 4, 2009 9:42 PM | Report abuse

I may be wrong, but I've noticed a change in the tone of your columns. After the soiree debacle, I waited for what seemed a very long time for one of the Post's columnists to write about it. Nobody did. And then, a week or so later, you did. Your article set things straight in clear, compelling language. Finally, the Post accepted responsibility. Since then, your writing has taken on a new kind of urgency. I realize this is your job, but it seems to me that your understanding of what you do has changed. I welcome the change. But it does sadden me a bit that it took so long for the Post to share its own story.
Larry Pray
Larrypray.com

Posted by: Praytell1 | August 4, 2009 10:18 PM | Report abuse

Hey, lets write a story about how "cool" it is to shop at one of our advertisers! We'll pretend it's informative news! They will get more business and buy more ads in what used to be our serious newspaper!

Posted by: Arlme | August 4, 2009 10:27 PM | Report abuse

Tatoo? What tatoo? I was too busy looking at her cleavage.

Posted by: maggots | August 4, 2009 10:46 PM | Report abuse

The photo looked like some sort of fashion shot; I noticed that the woman had an enormous tattoo, but my eye didn't linger long enough to see that it was a Target.

I don't see any serious issue.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | August 4, 2009 10:48 PM | Report abuse

What an utterly stupid waste of time and news space. The dollars spent having someone come up with a pointless tattoo overlay would have been better spent doing what the Post is supposed to do: report the news.

Posted by: exco | August 4, 2009 10:55 PM | Report abuse

This was outrageous! Please send me this poor woman's name and email so I can make sure she does not have any emotional trauma from this. Thank you.

No really, nothing wrong with the overlay, just put a prominent label describing it.

Posted by: patrick29 | August 4, 2009 11:16 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Alexander concerns himself with obits and tattoos while the editorial page sinks the Post's reputation. Check out the comments to Mr. Bolton's piece today. A real Ombudsman might want to explore why a paper with a dwindling readership allocates valuable print space to such a moron whose views are not just irrational, but downright dangerous.

Posted by: georgesmathers | August 4, 2009 11:17 PM | Report abuse

OK, so the tatoo's fake. You're forgiven. Now, what about the REST of the photo...?

Posted by: Apostrophe | August 4, 2009 11:25 PM | Report abuse

Hey, lets write a story about how "cool" it is to shop at one of our advertisers! We'll pretend it's informative news! They will get more business and buy more ads in what used to be our serious newspaper!

Posted by: Arlme | August 4, 2009 10:27 PM


Arlme, I think you hit the nail on the head. The WaPo was, after all, considering adding advertising links to some of its articles.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | August 4, 2009 11:40 PM | Report abuse

Dear Mr Ombudsman:

I was reading an article by John Bolton published 8/4/09 about Clinton's trip to North Korea. When I went back to re-read it today, it was gone! There is no trace of it! Is that something to do with the fact the trip was successful and Bolton had argued against it? Was it "scrubbed" because it made the WaPo editorial board look foolish? Please explain the WaPo policy about removing, without comment, material they have just published when it seems that events have proven their writers wrong.

Thank You.
"IndyInNh"

Posted by: IndyInNH | August 5, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

So why was the photo altered? What did the Post think was being gained by adding the tat to the woman? If you wanted to show what was in Target, why not take a photo inside the store or just direct people to Target's website if they've never been in a Target and were curious. Maybe you had space to fill and ran out of ads?

Posted by: Walt8 | August 5, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

You want us to trust you, here's an idea -- never manipulate pictures.

Really simple. Never. There's no other way. All the op-ed pieces in existence on the subject won't convince the reader. Just don't do it.

Posted by: jarediorio | August 5, 2009 7:18 PM | Report abuse

IndyInNh - Ummm... how hard did you look? It took me about five seconds to find it:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/04/AR2009080401486.html

It's an online paper, the link pages get updated constantly. But the info is usually still there.

Posted by: bobsewell | August 6, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

The problem, if there is one, arises because the underlying photograph appears to be a candid or documentary shot of a woman on the street. One only knows that it's a satire because the target is in correct perspective from the exact angle of the photo, and no other.

If the photo was a posed studio shot, even with the tattoo being done in make-up, thus in true perspective, we would understand that the image is most likely a satire, because the situation is presented as intentional.

Given the candid photo, if the tattoo was wrapped on the subject's arm to appear to be correct perspective from side-on, we would have an even weaker impression that it was fake, and thus not the publisher's satire; it would have to be the woman's personal comment.

Personally, I think it's pretty close to the edge - a greater awareness of the problems of perspective in art are needed to decode the image than one should assume the general public has. In the future, I would suggest using a more posed, and less documentary photo as the basis, and there shouldn't be a problem.

I'm a visual effects (VFX) supervisor who's done much simulation work on documentaries for NGS and Discovery, has taught this at the college level for many years, and has been a Photoshop professional since v.1.03 (1991).

Posted by: chimpunk | August 6, 2009 4:08 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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