That time of transparency film is long gone, and returning to it would be silly. But we could use more transparency in explaining how we chose to portray our world.
When I started photographing I believed that the vintage rangefinder my father loaned me recorded the truth. The simplicity of the process was seductive – I saw something and pressed the shutter. I chose to go into photojournalism because capturing those true moments appealed to me.
As with so many of life’s searches, finding truth turned out to be more complicated.
Like any tool, photography is something we curious humans find all sorts of unexpected ways to use. As I learned about the medium, I discovered that people started manipulating images produced by cameras almost as soon as photography was invented.
Some used ink or paint to retouch negatives. Others, more daring, manipulated portraits, such as the famous grafting of Abraham Lincoln’s head onto the dramatically posed body of slavery advocate John Calhoun. Exactly a century ago, many in England came to believe that fairies were real following publication of cleverly manipulated photographs.
The Cottingley fairies as they were known, look crude today but they depicted a reality that many found appealing. Now tools like Photoshop allow us to create entire worlds. The Lord of the Rings movies fascinated my son, so my husband placed a sword swinging portrait of him into an epic battle scene from one of the films. The Wonder Woman movie is released as I write this and with it comes a story where a photographer used considerably more skill to depict his three-year-old daughter as the Amazon heroine, seamlessly montaging her into key scenes, and adding special effects.
I’m sure his daughter will treasure those images and pass them on to her own children. I’m OK with clever creations like that. They’re not pretending to be real. All the many forms of conceptual photography in art, fashion and portraits, seem like natural fits for the possibilities of Photoshop.
What I’m not OK with is the growing lack of transparency about image manipulation in photography that aims to realistically reflect our world, like photojournalism. We’ve all seen such examples of manipulation, some done by very well-known photographers. Those of us who seek to document what is around us aren’t served by these practices. Nor are the people we photograph or the audiences on whose trust we depend.
As photographers, we make an astonishing array of choices every time we click the shutter. It starts with our presence, and how just being can alter a person’s behavior. When I have subjects ask me what I want them to do, I usually say “act natural.” (Whatever that means.) Then there are so many other choices – what to include in the frame, how to compose, what lens to use, where to focus, what sort of light to shoot in – all choices that we make, with great speed and often without conscious thought, up to the point where the shutter is clicked.
What has changed over my professional life is the ability to extend that all that choice-making process beyond the click of the shutter. Now, capturing the image is often just a starting point. Software makes simple manipulating and enhancing images in ways that defy scrutiny. As a result, we’re surrounded by images of improbable perfection. In today’s competitive professional world, the need to get noticed, and the temptation to overly manipulate images is understandable. But for journalism, such practices venture into dangerous territory, risking credibility of the publication. Many journalism contests now require review of raw files before winning entries are announced. Yet I can foresee the day when even raw files might be manipulated.
I worked for many years as a photographer for National Geographic Magazine. This was in pre-digital times, where we shot transparency film and the photo editors looked at every single image. The nerve-racking notion of sending undeveloped film halfway around the world and praying it didn’t get lost, baked on a broiling runway, or improperly developed paled next to knowing that your editor would see all your out of focus, horribly composed, badly exposed misfires. There was no place to hide.
The choices, technical, creative, and ethical, bestowed by today’s hardware and software are dazzling. Yet I wonder if this wealth of options removes us too far from the idea of a picture that is finished when the shutter clicks, of accurately reflecting the world around us, searching for the best light, waiting for the best moment. How do we keep our image-making honest?
For those of us who aspire to chase that elusive notion of truth, reflecting the world in some objective way, my suggestion is that we self-regulate and supply full disclosure. Make our viewers aware of how we got that effect. Explain what was done, be it desaturation, high contrast, HDR, NIC filters, etc. Be honest about the tools we use to bear witness to the events around us. Photography is an amazingly powerful tool, the world can be transformed by the images shared by us all, but we have to believe what we are seeing and have it correctly labeled, be it photojournalism, documentary, landscapes, wildlife, corporate or art. Each category has it’s own rules and ethics, from the strict standards of photojournalism to the anything goes world of art photography.
That time of transparency film is long gone, and returning to it would be silly and too cost prohibitive for the business model of today’s media world. But we could use more transparency in explaining how we chose to portray our world.