While judges from top photojournalism competitions ( World Press, PoYi, etc) are getting ready to sit down and assume their role of gatekeepers of the true art, what is or not acceptable image alteration continues to slow burn deep inside the profession with no clear resolution in sight. Each organization, each publication, and each photographer seem to have their own established set of rules that will be valid until the next technological advance forces them to abruptly revisit in the face of a new “cheating” scandal.
Because alteration is all about cheating, isn’t it ? Or is it ?
99% of the conversation regarding what can and cannot be done to a photograph is about post processing, after the image has been taken . Little, or none, is about before or when the image is taken. Mostly because that conversation would also require revisiting and questioning the legendary greats ( Capa, Bresson, Smith,..). No one touches the untouchables. However, the act of photography in its core is fundamentally an act of reality alteration. The act of photography is a decision in what not to include: sound, of course, as well as movement, obviously. Those are limitation imposed by technology. But then, enters more subjective decisions, like framing and composition. Photography is an act of conscious alteration at its core.
What color is your camera ?
Think about this for a while : how many photojournalists you know are of left-wing/ liberal conviction ? The majority ? It seems that the profession either attracts or influences the political position of those reporting on World news. And would you say their political conviction deeply affect what and how they cover an event. There is a very good chance that it does. Don’t we have here a strong grounds to alter reality in order to influence the viewers even before the image is taken ? As well, how many of the photo editors – or judges of photojournalism competitions- have strong left-wing political positions ? Wouldn’t that also affect their decision on what constitute a great photograph. After all, aren’t all news events political ? in other words, how can we even claim that there is such a thing as an unaltered image knowing that there is no subjectivity in the process, even before any image is taken.
So what could be an unaltered image ?
In a perfect world, the camera would capture an event as is, as perfectly as a mirror. A “pure” photograph collecting every grain of light the way it is and transposes it exactly on any selected medium ( digital file, print, negative). However, we all know that this is not possible. Film or sensors carry only a limited capacity to reproduce colors as well as light. Lenses can only do so much as to facilitate this capture but unfortunately crop or distort elements out the photographed reality. Thus, as soon as a photograph is taken, reality has been altered, forever. The concept of photography as a mirror of reality is a false one. However, never has anyone critiqued a photograph because it was taken with a particular focal or film sensibility as part of scheme to alter the reality. No one was ever fired for using a 35mm instead of a 55mm or a FujiFilm 100 instead of a Kodachrome 50. Even if the differences caused by these choices could be greater than any recent publicly denounced Photoshop alteration. In fact, we marvel how so and so uses only a 35mm or how this other one only very tight depth of field. It’s their style, we are told. But isn’t that a blatant form of alteration ?
It’s not the pixel
So what then? Any alterations done during the act of taking the picture is acceptable and any done post processing are immoral ? But what if these post processing alteration can be done at shooting time ? Pre program a camera to take the images based on a set of parameters so that the resulting file, without any post processing, has accentuated light or color correction. Acceptable or not ? No altered pixels means no altered image ?
Reducing the conversation of image manipulation in photojournalism to an issue of pixel manipulation and trying to pull out some scientific ruling to police it is not only erroneous, it diminishes the issue to its mechanical aspect when its a human one. Let’s face it loud and clear, image manipulation starts and ends with the intent to deceive. Not at what stage of the photographic process it happens. It is as unacceptable at the moment of shooting then it is at post processing. What should be defined clearly is “was the photographer consciously attempting to deceive” ? Thus image manipulation should not be judge based on how it appears, wether pixels have been altered, but if the intention of the photographer was to lie. What does this mean ? It means that a photographer that decides not to photograph a scene, or purposely frames an image to eliminate important context information is as guilty as the one that erases or adds pixels.
We cannot judge
But that leaves us with the painful question of being aware of this alteration via framing, which, unless if we are present at the scene, we cannot judge. One way would be to view other images taken at the same scene via other photographers and check for possible ill intentions. But that would be a photo editor’s and jury’s nightmare. For each image reviewed, one would have to find and look at hundreds more. If they even exist.
Furthermore, how do we separate a clear intent to deceive with a photographic style ? After all, the decision of what to exclude from a frame is what separates the great photojournalist from the common ones. Should we then ask everyone to shoot objectively as if holding a mirror ? Not only impossible but photojournalism would quickly become so vastly boring and unappealing, that it would achieve the opposite effect it intents to make.
Let’s face it, all photojournalistic images are altered.
The second it is taken, it is already carrying a lie. It is not the truth, just the one human being interpretation of it. It carries an underlying message, an intention, and for the most talented, a truly conscious decision to alter the viewers opinions.
The opinion makers of the photojournalistic world should stop trying to force the industry to return to a purer form of journalistic reporting by forcing rules and regulation upon one class of image manipulators and not the others. For one, pure photojournalism has never existed so we cannot return to it and second, it is hypocritical. How is one worst then the other ? Because one is easier to catch ?
Clearly state it
If photojournalists want to move pixels around for whatever reason it might be, let them do it. With one simple rule : clearly state it. There cannot be deception if it is announced. It is the viewers decision to accept, or not, the resulting image as photojournalism or “art”. If a photographer feels that an image has more impact by cloning fumes of smoke, let him do it, as long as the caption clearly states it. If another one decides to eliminate an object in the frame that was distracting, let them do it. Just make it clear in the caption. In other word, lets empower photojournalists to be upfront and honest about their work so that viewers can make an educated decision.
Let’s eliminate the rules, boundaries, directives, requirements, and put the burden of ethics on the photographers themselves. Enforce and empower the practice of responsible journalism instead of placing traps and procedures. Make each and every shooter the master of his decisions by promoting the responsible usage of alteration by making it open, public and acceptable. Photojournalism will only become stronger.