Wednesday, May 11, 2011

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.


Julie Hilton Danan said...

For me as a Jewish woman, it IS all about the policy of not showing women. You are NOT slinging mud at the Ultra-Orthodox; you are showing the truth about a segment of our own religion that wants women to be invisible. No just hidden in another room for prayer, but literally in back of certain buses in Jerusalem, out of sight, our voices not to be heard, and not even recognized when we are important public figures. A lot of jokes have been made (including hilariously by Colbert), but as a Jewish woman this affects me and all Jewish women and we should take it seriously.

BZH said...

I believe that this entire discussion is an intentional distortion. I first saw it on your blog hypothesized that perhaps the reason was because "Perhaps they just don't like the idea of a woman with that much political power." What a despicable thing to accuse an entire branch of Judaism of. They are a privately owned and operated newspaper, with the right to create any rules that they want, or any rules that their readership wants.
The bottom line is this: There is a problem of decadence in this world. Unfortunately, many (most?) women do not dress in accordance with the laws of modesty. So a religious newspaper has a choice. They can have someone on staff whose job it is to look at every picture of every woman and determine whether or not she is dressed well enough for their newspaper (for their readership's standards.) But how creepy would that be?? How disrespectful to women would that be? So they make a blanket rule. No photos of women in our newspaper.
You can laugh at that if you want to. But some people strive for spiritual betterment. Some people want to create at least a small community where true refinement of human nature is possible, without intrusion from the outside world that is losing its mind. Not looking at a woman who is not your wife is a rule in place to protect and foster one's own sexuality. They don't have a right to that? Everyone must bow to the same alter of hip cultural decay? Why wouldn't a rabbi celebrate the idea that there still exists within judaism some people who want to protect the spiritual aspect of it. Do you know that Avraham Avinu never once looked at his wife until they were on their way down to Egypt? Was he an extreme fundamentalist, no better than the extreme islamists, as some of your comments have offered? Of course not! He was a man, trying to be better.
And of course, then you have the other end of the spectrum. You have Rabbi Jasons, who mock this kind of spiritual pursuit, who end up linking through their twitter accounts to pages that offer nudity and profanity. So Kol Hakavod to you. You proved their point.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Thanks for your comment Julie. I was surprised that the Jerusalem bus issue didn't rise to the surface more in light of the media storm stemming from the Hillary Clinton Photoshop story. It's only a matter of time until Haredi enclaves in the U.S. begin to issue rulings that certain public buses must have women sit in the back so that Haredi men won't have to sit next to them.

As I've stated, these Haredi newspapers have the right to choose which photos appear in their pages, but altering photos (as they continue to do) is wrong.

Jews often tell the moderate members of other religions to be responsible and have the extremist groups in their faith tone down their rhetoric. If we expect moderates in Islam, for example, to moderate their own on the extreme right, why shouldn't Jews also be free to openly criticize elements of behavior on our extreme right?

I uphold the Tradition of Judaism, but I also embrace Modernity. Is that paradoxical? Sometimes. We're not living on the shtetl anymore so we can still live our lives in accordance with Halacha (the Jewish legal system), but also tweak it so we are part of the larger society in the 21st century -- an era when there are more women in the U.S. workforce than men, a woman is running Germany, and we have a woman serving as Secretary of State.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...


Just as the Haredi newspaper editors can decide which photos to use, I have the right to hypothesize that IN ADDITION TO REASONS DEALING WITH MODESTY, the Haredim "just don't like the idea of a woman with that much political power."

The first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State was Madeleine Albright. She was a 60-year-old Jewish grandmother when she was sworn into office. Do you think the Haredim approved of a Jewish Bubbie being 4th in line to succeed the President of the United States? They might have been proud on one level, but in their culture this is not the role Jewish women play. They should be a baleboste, taking care of the house, cooking and raising children. Do you argue with that?

The bottom line is that I openly criticized this newspaper for doctoring an image. Do you think that was ethical to do?

And if it's only a matter of not including ANY photos of women in the paper, please explain why one Haredi paper won't even print the names of world leaders who are women:

"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.

BZH said...

Is it not true that Hillary was elected twice as a senator from NY with an overwhelming "Haredi" majority? Without "approving" of her life choices?
Are you asking if Extreme Ultra Orthodox thought puts a higher premium on raising children than perhaps the Conservative movement? Is that your question? I would say the answer is yes. They believe there is no greater "Job" a Jew can aspire to than to raise good, Jewish children. Are you allowed to disagree with that? Sure. Does the Extreme Ultra Orthodox believe that you disagree with them at your own peril, and with the future of the Jewish Nation at stake. Yes. Are they allowed to believe that? Sure.
And again, the same issue pertains to writing a woman's first name. It's the familiarity, the personal nature of it, that they wish to stay away from. Is that wrong? I think not.
And if "hareidi" buses ask that men and women sit separately, it would be for the same reason. Men and women shouldn't mix, because it numbs ones extremely fragile and extremely under attack sexuality, even if maybe just a little bit.
And what an asinine comparison to make between the extreme right Muslims and Lehavdil the extreme right Jews!
We ask moderate Muslims to moderate their extreme right brothers, because their extreme right brothers blow people up, slit their throats, stab babies on the heart, burn down cities, kill their own families in honor killings, and in general are on a path to destroy the world. They have rules which they believe in, and if someone don't share their beliefs, they WILL KILL him/her.
And your extreme brothers doctored a photo! Are you really comparing?
And here is the real question. Is it ethical to use your brother's face as a stepping stone for your own publicity?

Anonymous said...

So Haredim voted for Hillary as a NY Senator BZH, but would they work that hard to have a Jewish woman (with children) elected Senator?

Anonymous said...

There has been talk about the comparison of the ultra-orthodox Jews to the Islamic Fundamentalists. Let’s set aside the obvious difference (Haredim do not seek to kill innocent civilians, etc.), and look at it from another perspective. You said that that just as “moderate members of other religions [need] to be responsible and have the extremist groups in their faith tone down their rhetoric” so should you do the same towards the “extremists” in your religion. Well, one thing that the militant Muslims have in common with Haredim is that neither will listen to the more modern wings of their own religion. Just as a conservative rabbi has no credibility as a halachic or hashkafic authority with a devout Hasid, and blog posts or comments will not change the photo policy of their publications, I would not expect the modern Muslim denouncing terrorism or extremism to have any impact on the terrorist groups out to destroy Western society. That having been said, why do we say that the moderate Muslims need to tell the extremists to “tone down their rhetoric”? The answer is, we shouldn’t, because they won’t listen. However, right or wrong, there is a perception in our modern society that Islam is evil, or bad, or that all/most/many Muslims are terrorists. Due to this perception, the modern Muslim is put on the defensive, and in order to minimize the negative feelings from the outside society, he may/must/should/shouldn’t have to but is compelled to demonstrate that he doesn’t feel this way or most Muslims don’t feel this way or those extremists do not accurately represent our religion. This is not the case with Ultra-Orthodox Jews. If you speak to the average non-Jew on the street, he has no clue about the haredi culture, or even the differences among the different types of haredim. As an orthodox Jew in the secular workplace, I have had many discussions with people who are under the assumption that I have the same values/culture/beliefs as their reform or conservative friend(s) because they assume that a Jew is a Jew. (That a Jew is a Jew is also the attitude of anti-Semites.) I have also had interactions with those who have enormous respect and understanding for Orthodox values/culture/beliefs once they hear some details. In the overwhelming majority of cases, those who have problems with haredi values/culture/beliefs are Jewish, but non-orthodox. I could hypothesize why this is the case, but this is not the forum. Suffice it to say that blog posts like yours, along with many of the comments, have two results. One is ammunition to anti-Semites, for whom all of us are just Jews, and who will look for any reason to hate us. The other is ammunition for those non-religious Jews who, for whatever reason, have problems with the Orthodox and refuse to explore the authentic Jewish values/culture/beliefs with an open mind. As an aside, speaking of lumping people together, there is also a great deal of variety among Orthodox. I am disappointed in the person who commented on an earlier post who has chosen to pull a child out of a Lubavitch preschool based on the practices of a group of Hasidim who have absolutely nothing to do with Lubavitch. I would also assume that a rabbi who wishes to “have the extremist groups in their faith tone down their rhetoric“ is well aware of at least the major differences among the sects of haredim, and I am saddened that you did not let her (and readers of comments) know that any anger towards Lubavitch about the photo policy is terribly misplaced. (By the way, I am Orthodox, though neither Hasidic nor Lubavitch.) If your goal is to synch up your religious practices with modern culture , well, it is a free country. However, those of us who have a true belief in the authentic Torah (both written and oral) and the Judaism as has been practiced for generations would appreciate the same freedom to choose values/culture/beliefs as you would take for yourself.

Anonymous said...

I, not a Jew, found the blog refreshing to know that there are reasonable people that can agree that a lie is a lie. To say otherwise is to silence all dissent, clearly not a reasonable, honest nor free thinking policy regardless of who says it. If the publication decides not to show women, don't use the photo or replace the picture with a gnome to make it obvious that there was someone there, like the billboards did. To Photoshop a picture to actually change the content is a deception and therefore a lie. I believe your scriptures you so want to adhere to agree that bearing false witness is breaking the law. Honesty and integrity are much more difficult to adhere to but yield a much greater harvest of respect in the long run. Don't take the easy road, it only leads to destruction.