Tool, or trouble? Facial recognition might be driving some sources away from the news

At first, Brittany Cantarella had no idea the man she accidentally swiped with her Chevrolet was named Lord Jesus Christ. But within two days, the minor traffic incident had gone viral. Reporters snatched the then 20-year-old’s Facebook profile picture and left messages on her grandmother’s answering machine. “It’s the girl that hit Jesus!” a man in Stop & Shop yelled.

“I wanted to hide, I wanted to run, I wanted to go far away,” Cantarella said.

Two months later, she was willing to talk to me about the accident at a coffee shop in western Massachusetts. She was resolute, though, that I not take her picture or shoot video. That’s because Cantarella’s experience with viral fame made her wary of having her image wedded to a traffic accident that would never go away online.

This small anecdote is part of a new media conundrum dogging the relationship between visual journalists and their subjects: most people happily publish their own picture online, but a growing number of them are becoming wary of having their image captured by visual journalists.

With facial recognition software becoming commercially available in the past few years, new technologies could further reshuffle the relationship between a subject and a visual journalist.

Ed Kashi is a renowned photojournalist who has spent the past 30 years shooting for National Geographic, the VII Photo Agency and dozens of other outlets. And, he told me in an email interview, he’s noticed individuals and organizations becoming more reluctant to allow visual access.

“There is more wariness and a desire to have more control over access and what you are allowed to show,” he said. “In some cases and with certain subjects, this new paradigm presents a dilemma and can halt worthy work.”

On balance, Kashi sees the change as positive. “Photojournalists are more accountable,” he said, since the people in the pictures can watchdog for accuracy whether they’re in New York City, Nigeria or the West Bank.

Pulitzer-Prize winning photojournalist Martha Rial, whose career spans over 20 years, agrees that photojournalists have a higher hurdle to get started on projects. “People are aware of how the 24-hour-news cycle has changed the perception of everything,” she told me.

“There’s no denying that it’s getting harder to convince people to allow photographers into their lives in a meaningful, substantive way,” said Jason Cohn, a Pittsburgh-based photographer and videographer, “and there’s no denying it’s for good reason on their part.”

Aside from his work as a photojournalist for outlets like Reuters, Cohn has been a member of his hometown city council since 2005. As a public official, he has become “really wary about photos taken of me, because you never know when a photo will be twisted or turned to be used against you out of context years down the road.”

With a few exceptions like spot news, visual journalists depend on their subjects’ consent. For a subject, that often means ceding control of your own image to a stranger.

Patience, respect and tenacity are the traits that photojournalists are taught to convince a waffling subject to appear in a story. Superlative photojournalists are renown precisely because they can find subjects who allow them to tell visual stories, regardless of obstacles.

How, then, does this wariness affect visual journalism? The problem arises when patience and time are not options visual journalists. That may be because they’re overworked daily journalists who don’t have time to talk their way into a storytelling picture. Or it might be because they are citizen journalists or students without the experience to explain the importance of their assignment. All might be too willing to take the first “no” as the final answer. That stops worthy visual coverage.

New technologies barreling into consumer products have the potential to further sandpaper the relationship between visual journalists and their subjects. That technology is facial recognition technology.

Over the past few years, versions of the technology have moved from law enforcement and big businesses to consumer uses, notably in Facebook and Google Picasa, according to Alessandro Acquisti, an associate professor of information systems and public policy at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University. He made headlines last summer with research showing he could find the name of 31 percent of CMU students who stopped at his research table simply by using facial recognition software and a database of public images from Facebook.

“You will never find me,” one student boasted before the experiment, Acquisti told me. The research team quickly found him thanks to a picture a friend posted.

“The subjects we identified, they were quite surprised,” said Acquisti.

Right now the kind of facial-recognition software Acquisti used for his research needs a frontal, well-lit shot to return a match.

“I’m pretty confident that [the technology] will get better and better over time. Whether it will ever meet or surpass human ability, it’s a difficult question,” says Acquisti.

If the consumer technology does become more powerful, it could have a significant effect on the subjects of news pictures. If a brutal actor like the Syrian government could find the identities of every protester, would it be ethical to take or publish a picture from a demonstration?

Sites like The Chive already feature galleries where they take pictures, sometimes from news or sports events, of women. Would those women want to be casually identified by anyone online? Those and other scenarios create an undeniable logic to not appearing in any news pictures.

Acquisti’s scientific research is more rigorous than the anecdotal wariness some visual journalists see. But “the behavioral economics of privacy,”
as Acquisti calls his research focus, portends a future where the subjects of visual journalism have new incentives to appear or not appear in the media.

“The joke is don’t put anything online that you would not like to have on the front page of the NY Times 10 years from now, because chances are that if you become an important person or you are about to be considered for an important position, that information will resurface.”

Should that message sink in, visual journalists may find themselves trying to fit in to a different equation.

Los Angeles Times: One edition, lots of great photojournalism (and stories)

My wife and I recently decided to subscribe to the newspaper again. We’re ‘weekender’ subscribers to the Los Angeles Times. Like most papers, the size is a fraction of what it use to be, but the content is as diverse as the city it covers.

I, like most modern news consumers, have not had much time to actually sit down with the paper product, even through we only get it Thursday through Sunday.

But today, over the breakfast table, we get our fingers dirty with ink print (which I love) and dug in.

I could not ignore the great, diverse photos that filled the paper – the majority of the great shots from staff. So much so, I had to write this post.

In this one, random edition [Saturday, March 5, 2011], I found great photos throughout the sections of the paper. Check them out below… all of them but one are available online.

Back in Libya after decades in exile, a dissident takes on Kadafi
Since his return in late December, a longtime opposition group leader has become more vocal in his denunciation of Moammar Kadafi. But some experts say such groups have been gone too long to be of much help to the rebels in the streets.
Back in Libya after decades in exile, a dissident takes on Kadafi
Anwar Magariaf fought from abroad against Moammar Kadafi’s rule for more than 30 years. (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times / March 4, 2011)

Founder of Crescendo charter schools fired
John Allen is accused of promoting cheating on standardized tests; L.A. Unified closed all six schools in the group.
Just after the charter group’s governing board decided unanimously to fire him as executive director, John Allen, founder of Crescendo schools, leans against a wall. Shortly thereafter, he left the meeting. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times / March 4, 2011)
Just after the charter group’s governing board decided unanimously to fire him as executive director, John Allen, founder of Crescendo schools, leans against a wall. Shortly thereafter, he left the meeting. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times / March 4, 2011)

As L.A. tourism rebounds, tour buses bring noise and gridlock
Residents of Beverly Hills and the Hollywood Hills complain that an increase in tour buses — crowded with photo-snapping visitors — is clogging narrow residential streets.
Reflected in a bus mirror, visitors Sharon Butchart of Uxbridge, Canada, left, and Miriam Leiser of Ramsey, N.J., use headphones to listen to their tour guide. (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles Times / February 23, 2011)
Reflected in a bus mirror, visitors Sharon Butchart of Uxbridge, Canada, left, and Miriam Leiser of Ramsey, N.J., use headphones to listen to their tour guide. (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles Times / February 23, 2011)

Aaron Liberman hopes to lead Valley Torah to a first for Jewish schools
Aaron Liberman and his brother Nathaniel earn kudos for their work ethic as Valley Torah prepares for 6AA Southern Section basketball championship game against Bishop Diego on Saturday.
Brothers Aaron and Nathaniel Liberman after a recent Valley Torah practice in Burbank. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / March 2, 2011)
Brothers Aaron and Nathaniel Liberman after a recent Valley Torah practice in Burbank. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / March 2, 2011)

Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times
Only part of portrait photo, taken by Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times, of ornithologist Peter Harrison is seen in the archive and sadly not available online version: Scientists announce discovery of new species of seabird, the first in 89 years

To be fair, there were some great stories too, especially the ones paired with the photos. From the latest on Libya to California having the highest gas prices in the country to LAPD’s dilemma with Charlie Sheen, a good mix of stories that caught my (limited) attention. My favorite, though, was this piece my wife spotted inside business: Spiders in Mazda cars still a mystery (print headline)

I have to say, this experience reminds me of an incredibly powerful piece by Robert Niles in OJR a few months back: Letting go of the rope: Why I’m no longer a newspaper subscriber.

In it he used the strong imagery of letting go of the rope while someone, who asked for help but failed to do anything to improve their situation, was still holding on. The person on the rope was the newspaper/news industry.

Personally, I think Niles forgot something.

Yes, the news industry needs to do more to get itself out of the situation. But, the only person he saw on the rope, in my opinion, was the leadership.

What I think Niles missed are the hundreds of people trapped under that leadership … the ones that are passionate and believe in the value of their craft… the ones that — even after layoffs, furloughs and bad pay – come to work every day, working long hours to tell the stories of the community in text, photos, videos or whatever form the best they can.

Journalists that are as frustrated as Niles, but are trapped under that leadership. Journalists that choose not to let go of the rope. Journalists that are trying to do what they can with what they have … in most cases, “more with less.”

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of crap too (Check out There is a long way to go to make this better. I’m also as frustrated as Niles is with the leadership.

But I can’t lump the great, good or even mediocre work journalists do across the country every day and night with the bad leadership and poor business decisions that have undercut them and our industry.

I’m just a weekender, and for this one edition, I’m glad we re-subscribed.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

How does the new, free online Photoshop match up with its free competition?

Last week, Adobe opened to the public a free online version of its popular Photoshop photo editing software, Photoshop Express. We’ve devoted two recent articles on OJR to examining the best free online photo slideshow tools, so I thought that this would be a good occasion to look at the top free online photo editing tools.

I’ve been using Picnik to edit photos on my Mac, which does not (at least yet) have the desktop version of Photoshop installed. I’ve found it quite useful, though limited when compared with the full version of Photoshop. I wanted another tool to compare with Photoshop Express and Picnik, and recalled Splashup, another online photo editing tool that looks much more like the familiar desktop version of Photoshop than anything else I’ve seen online.

All three tools are free and require no special downloads or installations, save for the ubiquitous Flash browser. Here are my notes on the three, followed by a handy features chart and my conclusions on how Photoshop Express matches up.


Picnik does not require a user to register in order to use its photo editing tools, though Picnik does offer a premium for $25 a year that gives you access additional type fonts as well as to levels and curves tools when editing your photos.

Picnik works within the existing browser window, without spawning a pop-up and offers an easy-to-use interface with text labels for its tools, not icons. That makes Picnik especially easy to use for novices, and support for multiple languages is available. Basic phot editing tools – crop, resize, color and exposure adjustment and sharpen – are available under the “Edit” tab, while more advanced image manipulation features, including the addition of text and graphic elements, are available under the “Create” tab. Despite what that tab implies, however, I couldn’t find a way to create a new image file using Picnik; I could only edit ones I (or someone else) had created elsewhere.

This is a tool for picture editing… and that’s it. There’s no photo storage option, although Picnik allows you to save edited images to your account on Flickr, Picasa, Facebook, Photobucket, Webshots and Myspace, as well as to your hard drive. You can open images from those locations, as well as from any URL on the Web. You even can do a Yahoo! photo search from within the Picnik website, in order to find more pictures to edit. (No longer does one have to bother downloading images to your computer in order to edit swiped photos anymore.)


Splashup looks more like an older, simpler version of the classic Photoshop desktop program. Like Picnik, it offers but does not require registration. But it does spawn a pop-up window for its Flash picture-editing application.

Here, you use the top-of-the-window menu bars and familiar toolbars that you’d use in the old Photoshop. You can open images from your computer, as well as from Flickr, Facebook, Picasa or another URL on the Web.

Splashup offers more editing functions than Picnik, as well as the ability to create a new image file. This makes the site a handy resource for someone who wants to create a few simple Web graphics, without the expense of buying a full-fledged graphics program, such as Photoshop or Adone Illustrator. Of course, Splashup provides nowhere near the functionality that one would find in those tools, but those tools (when used legally) certainly can’t beat Splashup’s price.

Splashup also was the only one of the three online tools I worked with that supported layers, as well as the ability to use the “lasso” tool to define and grab part of an image for use in another. But it lacked a red-eye removal tool which the others did have, as well as a simple-to-use “auto correct” function.

Which brings us to…

Photoshop Express

Photoshop Express made most sense to me when I stopped expecting it to be just like Big Daddy Photoshop, and decided instead to view this tool as basically Picasa with some handy photo editing tools attached. Think of it as the flip side of Splashup, where the editing seems the focus and the storage the afterthought.

Adobe requires you to create an account and sign in to use Photoshop Express. From there, like on Picasa, you can create albums and upload photos. In addition to uploads from your computer, Photoshop Express supports instant import from Facebook, Photobucket and Picasa. Once uploaded, you can click on your pictures to edit them, but you cannot export the image into a different file type once you’ve finished editing. If you uploaded a JPG, it’s gonna stay a JPG.

Photoshop Express uses a user-friedly mix of text and icons to label its tools, of which there are many for color, exposure and focus correction. When you choose a tool to work with, you can’t select specific attribute values with the tool, as you can with other tools. Instead, Photoshop Express generates several modified versions of the original image, in thumbnail form, from which you can choose the one that represents the altered value you want, such as hue, saturation or focus. It’s very easy to use for someone who has not worked with attribute values and simply wants to pick something “darker,” for example.

Photoshop Express Picnik Splashup
Cost Free Free Free
Registration Required Yes No No to edit. Yes to store
New image No No Yes
Resize No Yes Yes
Rotate Yes Yes Yes
Crop Yes Yes Yes
Auto correct Yes Yes No
Color correct Yes Yes Yes
Exposure correct Yes Yes Yes
Red eye correct Yes Yes No
Undo Yes Yes Yes
Sharpen Yes Yes Yes
Layers No No Yes
Add text No Yes Yes
Add graphics No Yes (defined) Yes
Gradient No No Yes
Lasso selection No No Yes
Save as JPG No Yes Yes
Save as GIF No Yes (poor) No
Save as PNG No Yes Yes
Save as TIF No Yes No
Store photos Yes No Yes

In summary, I didn’t find any functionality in Photoshop Express that Web users didn’t already have available to them in Picasa, Picnik and Splashup. Photoshop Express would be the best option for people who wanted a single tool that combined free online photo storage with novice-friendly photo editing functionality. If using two websites isn’t a problem, I found Picnik’s tool more powerful and user-friendly than Photoshop Express. Then you can upload and store your photos on Picasa, Flickr or anywhere else you’d like.

Would you use any of these in an online production environment? When I’m shooting with a decent quality SLR camera, I don’t find that I need the basic image correction that’s possible with these free online tools. But when using a cheaper digital still camera, having the ability to color correct, eliminate red eye and sharpen an image with a free, easily accessible online tool is a nice option to have. And I think that Splashup’s graphical tools are useful for students and novices who want to try a few simple graphics, without having to invest significant coin in a full-function solution such as Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator first.