To be a tad technical, which I occasionally indulge in being, I would say that ethics is a branch of philosophy that specifically deals with people and the way we treat one another. More specifically, addressing the "rightness" or "wrongness" of our actions and even further (and most importantly if you ask me) the implications of both motives behind, and results of those actions.
If you're reading this here, you likely have already read some of my wall posts back and forth on Facebook that get into my personal feelings on this subject matter. Here is a recap of what I wrote to my first cousin, Drew:
Ah, yes, you've touched on a lot of the primary points. Essentially, the issue comes down to audience and intent towards that audience as you got into a bit. People have been splicing negatives since photography's inception to doop the public into believing the manipulation. We simply have far better tools to achieve the same effect nowadays. The bottom line, however, is that the manipulation represents a lie. Now, is this lie dangerous or harmless? Again, intent AND representation are key. If a news outlet alters the actual event occurring in the photo in any way it becomes dangerous, unethical and even criminal. If other adjustments are made, however, such as lighting differences post-shutter snap that you also mentioned, these would not fall into the same category. For instance, a journalistic photograph viewed on my computer screen through brightly lit pixels is going to look far different from one I see in newsprint and even further changed if color information is discarded.
It seems though that many family photographs are being altered at an increasing rate these days and to what effect and purpose? Is this a dangerous practice or harmless? Intent, intent, intent. Countless women - and men - have utilized the wonders of the liquefy tool to tuck in some of those curves. All the magazines do it to the typically already beautiful rich and famous so why not the layperson? You won't see a single image posted by me of myself that shows you the acne I constantly battle with on a daily basis. But these are mere issues of personal vanity. They are lies still the same. How many young people have eating disorders as a result of those types of manipulations? Altering events, however, is what concerns me the most. Since legality is not an issue with the picture the question of ethics comes to the forefront of my mind. Yes, it is a photo for personal use, but it is also a form of posterity.
I agree with you that if the intent (there's that word again) is merely to show the effect of time then it MIGHT make sense to remove the faces of those whose changes aren't relevant to us any longer. A notation is still absolutely appropriate in my mind. Names need not even be mentioned. On the other hand, if the image is intended to show our history at a single moment in time, which, knowing Lorine seems to me to be the most likely reason (but who knows), then I feel a deep ethical problem with any alteration that would remove or add anyone. I've emotionally cut Ron from my life, I don't feel any need to physically do it through these means. We are physically connected through our DNA anyway so I will never NOT be a part of him, whether I like it or not. My emotions are mine to dictate, not his.
Here's where things really become interesting, and scary. We have this wondrous new tool in our little universe called, Facebook. People we forgot even existed begin popping out of the woodwork wanting to be our friend and then the question comes to your mind: Do I really want to add this person as a friend? Do I care what they're doing now, decades later? Will they be offended if I reject them? None of these are terribly important questions, but to those of you who may indiscriminately add everyone who asks you as friends you may eventually end up facing a photo dilemma. Sometimes, however, it happens within your own families.
Do you remember that one night back in college 14 years ago when you got so drunk with your buddies that you snuck into the girls' dorms and started knocking on doors begging for underwears (and yes, that's the word you used, "underwears") and actually managed to score a few pairs before finally being escorted out by a pissed-off security officer? Well, your "friend" sure as hell remembers and has the photo documentation to prove it! Oh, and guess what? He just put it up on his Facebook and tagged you so your grandma, who is also your friend can now see your embarrassing, albeit fun, exploits of yesteryear. Yes, that's really you wearing the hot pink lacy number over your sweat pants. Flexing your arms really put the finishing touches on nicely. Very sexy.
I found that all to be fascinating, but also not at all surprising. It's actually sort of old news in the world of a photographer. I had a professor whose favorite mantra to encourage us with was to always shoot first, ask forgiveness later. For the record, we only had a few near-arrests during my course of study, but no one ever did any time. I even came very close to an altercation once in a public cemetery in Baltimore whose groundskeeper that lived on the property didn't want me photographing the entry gates with his home in the background. In a court of law, in that situation, my rights would exceed his. My lens was not, after all, deliberately poking between the curtains to see what's inside. That's why the paparazzi, as nasty as they are, get away with as much as they do. In public there is very little legal recourse against photography (in America anyway). So, keep away from peoples' windows and, obviously, don't go around taking pictures of other peoples' kids you don't know, creepy guy.
This is a fun essay with excellent examples of some of the finest, and freakiest photo manips throughout the existence of the technology. Many you likely know about, but some may surprise you:
Essentially, right and wrong when it comes to photography manipulation all boils down to your intentions for your audience. Along these lines, you are not responsible for your audience's reaction. You are, however, responsible for your motivations behind sharing an original or an altered photo. There is no way of getting around the fact that an alteration of a photograph from the original (ie. removing or adding people) is a falsification. That doesn't automatically make it ethically wrong. Just false, which is fine. Again, what is the intent or purpose of the image? Never forget to ask yourself that. Another favorite mantra of the same professor.
It's not written here, but Drew pointed out the idea of making a notation of the alterations. And here is where my ethics on the matter can clearly define a "right" or a "wrong" decision. Who here likes being lied to? No hands? No kidding. A manipulation of a photograph is not a wrong or a bad thing to do. Not at all (don't forget about the intent, I can't stress this enough). Sometimes we try to do the manipulation before the shutter can even capture something. For instance, I made a deliberate effort to point Ron out to the photographers at our wedding to do everything they could to keep him out of their shots. I think he managed to sneak into one and I don't think either Dave or I were even in it. Let's just say that it's not up on my wall, but the image does still exist intact and original.
Also, as I mentioned above regarding my own manips, I don't mind walking around every day with a zit be-speckled face completely makeup free. I honestly don't. But once it has been captured for the ages, I'd rather look back at the images of this time in my life and be able to just look at my face without the distraction of all those little annoyances that caused me so much pain. Yes, I do get the irony here. I am telling a lie to everyone who ever looks at those pictures of me that I had control over - but you know it's a lie. Ethical dilemma solved. There is no wool over your eyes, just a prettier picture of me. If only the magazines were that honest, eh? I could keep going on and on with this topic - two years builds up a LOT of conversations about it - but I'll leave you guys to mull over your own thoughts on how you feel about it.
The most honest liar you are ever likely to encounter, Liz
p.s. Just for fun and a little personal humiliation, here are my completely unaltered shots sent in to Proactiv in 2007 (Note: I'm not very good at forming new habits, thus the continued existence of my little facial bacterial army. The uni-brow? Oh yeah, baby, that's all me too!):