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Thou shalt not lie

Photography is an act of reduction. Besides the obvious like sound, touch, smell, when we photograph, we take a conscious decision to subtract elements of reality. Framing is not so much about what to include but rather what to exclude. Everything we decide not to include in our frame is considered a distraction and non-essential.

Editing is an act of reduction. A photo editor’s job is to subtract all the photographs that are either redundant, too weak ( because of the distractions), or not enough self-explanatory.

A publication’s job is to dig deep into the clutter of incoming images from various sources and publish the one image that best resumes the situation. Another act of subtraction.

Ultimately, between a scene and the photograph finally seen by viewers far away, there has been a huge amount of reductions, subtractions and deletions, all perfectly conscious and deliberate. 

So why is it that when a photographer goes the extra step of deleting an element in a photograph because he felt it was distracting, we raise our swords and demand justice be done, in the name of the holy saint of journalistic integrity?

How many times have we seen published in venerable journalistic publications artsy looking black and white photography of major event like the war in Afghanistan? Isn’t black and white the ultimate voluntary alteration and deletion? Why is it that we rave and praise the New York Times for publishing Hipstamatic made images of news event – an obvious breach of the “thou shalt not alter”- but will not tolerate any cloning?

The answer lies in the declaration. A black and white reportage, as much as it strips another important layer of reality, is an obvious alteration. It is not seen as cheating because it is declared up front that these images are not a true representation of reality but an interpretation. We see that the colors are missing before reading the images.We do not feel tricked. Same with the Hipstamatics. We are told what they are and thus can accept them – or not- as what they are.

Narciso Contreras’ – the Pulitzer prize winner photographer just booted out of AP for altering an image – error was not to have deleted the video camera out of the picture but rather not saying anything about it. If he had done so and inform the desk of AP, he would still have his job today. It would have been AP’s desk decision  to either send out the altered image or not – probably not- with a warning to publications.

Contreras images of Syria pulled by AP for being altered

 What we cannot stand is the act of deception. The perceived impression that someone is deliberately lying to us and trying to deceive us. It is not tolerable in real life, even less in photojournalism.

This conversation and its reaction have happened many times in the past and will continue to happen as long as the industry does not take any steps to change it. We have heard it many times at the tables of the café de La Poste in Perpignan to the desk of the jury of the World Press Photo as well as in countless blogs, publications and online magazines. We are all aware of famous news photographs of now iconic status that have deliberately been altered, either by deletion or very selective cropping. We now seem however to tolerate it less, probably because digital makes it easier and less traceable.

The solution is simple. If a photographer, or a photo editor, or a publisher wants to alter an image to enhance its effectiveness, let it be clearly known. Do not lie or attempt to deceive by hiding the fact that some major alteration have been made. Put a clear warning in the caption that the image has been altered beyond industry acceptable standard. Let the viewers know up front. AP, for example, does this already with commercial images that have been taken on assignment and could have been affected by self-censorship. Getty Images does too. You can see it the credit when it reads “photog’s name/ Getty Images for company name”.

 Why not do the same for altered images and put this debate behind us once and for all. Accept that some images, because of the condition in which they were taken, might contain a useless and distracting element that was purposely deleted to make the image more readable. There is nothing wrong about it, as long as we are informed of it. A file copy of the original can be kept for editors who would like to see what was deleted so they could judge if its truth altering or not. Publications or wire services could even have a filter that would allow – or not – such images to get to their desk. And let photography, and great photographers, continue their important work. Photography is an act of reduction, subtraction and alteration. Let’s be  honest about it and move on.

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