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Monday, April 16, 2007

How Photojournalism Is

"A news photograph is a statement, like a spoken or written one, subject to interpretation and evaluation, but as capable of being honest as any verbal statement...."

I had to scrounge long and hard to find an clear example of image manipulation in my files, but here it is—this is a paperback book cover I once did, and below it the original file.

As you can see, I've taken some liberties with reporting the telephone pole that was sprouting from the golfer's neck. (You can click on either image to examine them more closely.) Of course in my usage of this picture here, it falls solidly into the category of photo-illustration, not reportage. But it makes a nice, if modest, point: that even a very minor change is enough to cross the yawning chasm that's supposed to exist between photo-illustration and reportage.

In my experience, some people never learn how to really look at photojournalism, because they're too preoccupied with pictorial prettiness; they get distracted by the ugly details and bad juxtapositions and the sometimes poor technique of photojournalistic pictures. You need to learn to see past that stuff to see into the essence of what's being reported. (And by the way, I certainly can't agree with the commenters who've asserted that every photograph is a fiction, any more than I believe that reality is a dream. A news photograph is a statement, like a spoken or written one, subject to interpretation and evaluation, but as capable of being honest as any verbal statement.) Photojournalism is rougher, rawer, often less organized and composed. That's natural. It's just a different form of photography.

One thing that I count among our losses these days is something that I seldom see mentioned. It's become a truism that photographs have always been doctored, were often faked, and always had the potential to be false, and that's true—but it's also true that deceit in an analog photograph was much harder to accomplish and much easier to detect. Consequently, one of the chief aims and rare prizes of photography was finding real situations that were visually remarkable—it was that assumption that the things photographed existed in the world just the way they looked that lent them much of their charm and strangeness. Now, of course, with so many more "images" become naught but photo-illustrations, so much less transparently, this manner of enjoying pictures has been diminished.

As an (again, modest) example of what I'm talking about, consider the picture to the left. I think it's funny only because it's true. In the days of analog, the joke would have been difficult to fake in "post," at least without a fairly onerous amount of work. It would be trivial to create the joke in post-processing with digital. (What joke? Click on the picture and look at the license plate.) In this case it's pictured just as I saw it—no manipulation. How do you know? Because I said so, and ultimately you either take my word where my "statements" are concerned, or you decide not to. That's how it is with photojournalism.


Featured Comment by Blork: The statement that "all photographs are lies" is useful for people who like to sit up all night in (formerly) smoky cafés pondering metaphysics, but it isn't useful for determining guidelines in the "real world" for the separation of photography and photo illustration.

Mike, you said "some people never learn how to really look at photojournalism." I would amend that to "many people never learn how to look at photographs."

Not to be overly cynical, but photography is the "easy art"—particularly these days, with the ubiquity of digital. So we're working in a medium that is saturated with millions of essentially meaningless images. We're inundated with photographic images in newspapers, magazines, online, on billboards, sidewalk advertising, etc. Everybody and his dog has a digital camera and is uploading to Flickr and similar sites. Thousands of "photo a day" photo blogs are out there, where people post a photo every day, whether they have something worth posting or not.

What gets lost in there is the idea of contemplating the image. As you say, people get hung up on "prettiness," so endless overprocessed HDR images get more eyeballs and are more highly ranked than images that are actually about something but require more than three seconds of eyeball time to "get."

Oh dear. I think I'm falling into a rant, so I'll stop right there. Suffice to say that your removal of the offending pole in the book cover image is a non-issue. The photo is "about" setting the stage for a golf book; it's not about that specific person on that specific hole at that specific time.


Blogger Jason said...

"A news photograph is a statement, like a spoken or written one, subject to interpretation and evaluation, but as capable of being honest as any verbal statement"

Of course, a photo is also capable of being a lie. Camera placement, cropping, selection of moment and subject, etc. I certainly don't want to speak for anyone but I think that's often the meaning behind peoples' blanket assertions that all photos are fiction. No matter what your intentions are, one's personal bias will consciously or subconsciously affect the image.

Most people recognize this but it needs to be sais to counter similar blanket statements like "a photo is the actual event" or "the visual equivalent of a quote, etc."

5:58 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Of course, a photo is also capable of being a lie"

Many statements are lies as well. Many statements are sincere but untrue, or unproveable assertions, or technically correct but intended to deceive, etc. We learn to evaluate the whole constellation of possibilities based on our experience, intelligence, and instinct. It's really the same way with pictures. The truth-value of anything is a provisional calculation we must make based on a great many factors. As with statements, you can be gullible with pictures, or excessively skeptical, or distractable, or perhaps overly sentimental, or come to them with some other need or emotion in mind. But just as we're still able to communicate, we're still able to learn something true about the world from pictures. It does depend on the person who authored the picture, though, and his or her intentions, integrity, access, etc.


9:03 PM  
Blogger Ctein said...

Not to give away too much of my next column, but...

... there is a profound and important difference between selection and active construction (or destruction) when you present a statement.

Suppose I am photographing a politician I don't like, speaking to an large crowd in an auditorium. I can choose to zoom in tight on the speaker, cropping out most or all of the crowd. This omits the information that it was a LARGE crowd; it's rather like saying "Dubya spoke to an auditorium..." It is an incomplete, even distorted, depiction of a larger reality, but within itself, it is accurate enough. (And, no, it is not fair journalism).

In contrast, suppose I make a wide-angle photo that takes in the whole auditorium, but I photoshop most of the audience into non-personhood, showing a sea of mostly empty chairs.

Same speaker, same vantage point, same number of listeners shown. So, really, what's the difference in import between the selective crop in photo 1 and erasing those unwanted elements in photo 2?

Need I answer that? For most readers, the difference is obvious and deeply profound and makes self-evident the vast ethical gulf that opens between cropping and internal editing.

For the few readers who don't think it makes it obvious... THEY are why the NPPA has to make firm and concrete rules, because those folks will otherwise slide right down the slippery slope from "prettier" to "outright lie" on a greased toboggan.

2:08 AM  
Blogger John Pinson said...

Perhaps starting to get into the semantics of what it means to lie, this discussion seems strange to me. Since photographs are essentially recordings of how a camera sees the world with some input from someone pushing a button, it seems odd to think of these recordings as willful mistruths.

Things such as cropping, selection, angle of view, photoshop tools, etc. are photographic choices. The results are often conscious but they are often not. This artful manipulation could be wherein the lie lies. Since it is easy to manipulate the result of a particular button press, This suggests the photographer is the lier. In the case of reportage, absolutely. It is the manipulation that is the lie. But what of the unconscious or accidental images, those momentary and surreal juxtapositions that photographers find in the world? Is this a lie because it is not what we expect?

This idea that photography is a lie probably lies in a corruption of post structuralism. Thinkers like Baudrillard realized that we know and understand the original thing (the subject) through the reproduced image. We "know" the pyramids, but how many of us really know the pyramids without the influence of a history of photographers who've made them their subject. Even those who have actually been there have had their understanding shaped by photographs. The post structuralists would argue no one can know the thing in itself. Knowledge is always filtered through representations (our language, culture, images, etc.). Photography, because it purports to capture "reality," is an especially powerful filter.

We cannot ever know "reality" without mediation and we cannot understand the photograph without our culturally and perspectivally limited interpretive faculties. To us, reality is understood through the photograph. Neither is lie; neither is truth. What we know of both is dependant on the other and neither can serve as arbiter of "truth."

4:42 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

Need I answer that? For most readers, the difference is obvious and deeply profound and makes self-evident the vast ethical gulf that opens between cropping and internal editing.

The problem I've had with that statement and others in a similar vein, is that fails to make the distinction that the difference is merely technical.

I don't know why people are so hung up on that and yell "Uh uh, CAN'T YOU SEE THE DIFFERENCE?"

No, tell me. If you rob a bank with a gun in the daylight or pick the pocket of the guy walking out, you're a crook. Just because you used a gun instead of your feet doesn't make a difference.

The problem is that people counter whoever says that they don't see the difference with the explicity or implicit argument that they will manipulate a photo regardless and thus slide down the slope.

What people never do is give the photographer the benefit of the doubt and assume they are ethically sound to begin with and won't edit in front of the lens out of context or manipulate in front of the monitor, that the photographer recognizes the limitations of the photojournalistic style as Mike mentioned.

Perhaps it's society's natural tendency to find fault first, maybe it's the fact that unethical people in the profession have set bad examples. Maybe I'm being "Polyanna-ish" in my attitudes toward others.

In fact, I'll throw out some flamebait and assume that people who have to constantly look to a rulebook for guidance instead of their own moral character would be the first to lie had it not been for a "rulebook."

Ctein, I look forward to your column as I think you're one of the few people capable of explaining the difference, because all the other explanations I've heard fail to address anything beyond technical issues.

9:43 AM  
Blogger fivetonsflax said...

There are cryptographic means of assuring that a digital photograph hasn't been manipulated.

10:11 AM  
Blogger buzzkill said...

I have not seen this myself!!!

The radio show I have on at work states that the NY Post has a photo from yesterday's shooting with a victims penis exposed. The same photo in the NY Times has the same photo without the exposure...they claim it is photoshopped.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Ctein said...

Dear Jason,

OK, I'm not sure if by "technical" you mean "pertaining to technique" or "picayune;" either meaning would fit what you say. So let me address several cases.

The former is simple-- yes, I agree with you that it *is* a technical distinction. That's why it's a good rule. It's one people can easily follow and transgressions are easily defined. "Drive safely" is not a good rule for social control. "Do not change lanes without signaling" is.

(Which, as a side issue, is why eternal vigilance is part of implementation, given how rarely people signal when changing lanes and how few are ticketed for it.)

The latter connotation? No, it's not a picayune difference. Photo 1 omits information that may be of importance to you, especially in a larger context, but it does not assert a falsehood. The reader or historian may well wish to know how many people were listening to dubya, but they won't assume they know, based on that cropped photo. Photo 2 asserts a positive falsehood-- that the auditorium was mostly empty chairs. That's explicit and it's a lie. The difference is not at all technical.

If you meant the content change, in most real cases, is picayune, the problem is that you are not remotely competent to judge that. I say that with assurance because no human being is. No one knows enough to be. I'll elaborate with examples in my column..

Regarding the flamebait, it does not actually matter who is more likely to break the rules. The point is that they not be broken. Photojournalism is not about getting to do your own thing, or making the prettiest photo you possibly can, any more than written journalism is about writing the most compelling prose you know how. That's what art and literature are for.

Photojournalism requires following certain rules of discourse and evidence. Within the rules of the game, you are allowed to make the prettiest photo you can, but you don't change the rules nor are you allowed to break them, simply because then you can make prettier photos.

Artists get to make the rules; if they can produce something that speaks to the audience, they've succeeded. News photographers MUST "draw within the lines." The game is to see how great a photo you can make playing within the rules.

pax / Ctein

1:07 PM  
Blogger Blork said...

Mike, thanks for featuring my comment. (I normally comment as "blork" but Blogger was being buggy with my login this morning.)

Regarding the "flamebait," I would say that one's "moral character" doesn't just materialize out of nothing. neither should it just come from a rule book. Conversations like this one are a big part of the process of developing that moral character -- particularly for young people and people starting out in the photo biz.

I like ctein's distinction that artists can make up their own rules but that news photographers must "draw within the lines." And I would argue that for straight news photos, the lines are clear -- no manipulation at all.

But it's not always so clear. For example, when the story gets old and the photo loses its immediacy, can it transcend from "news" to "art?" Maybe. Sometimes. For some images.

I'm thinking of the famous Allan Detrich example from last week of the football team shot with the legs removed from under a banner. Even though the legs being there or not being there were of no consequence to the meaning of the image, as a "news" shot they should have remained as a matter of maintaining the public trust that news photographers don't manipulate images.

But what if in five years' time he were to put that in a book of his favorite football shots? Would it be legitimate to alter the imate then? (Grey area.) What if he wanted to print it and put it on the wall in his studio as part of a showcase of his work? Mainipulation in that case would be entirely reasonable.

2:58 PM  
Blogger The Worst of Perth said...

There was a famous Australian pioneer photographer during WW1 time who began to use composite negatives of the battlefield because he felt the single pic could often not give an accurate impression of the feeling of the war. Debate over this technique was vigorous at the time, and even now. Hurley was a staunch defender of it. Perhaps most important is whether people know it's being done. There are some superb images no matter what.

6:01 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Hurley was an interesting character in that he did not regard himself as a journalist. He felt it was more important to record the emotions of what he saw more than the simple facts. This caused all sorts of problems with his superiors. This was not just confined to his war photography, his movies about Papua New Guinea were also made this way. many would argue that Hurley was more a showman.

In 1963 Newsweek commissioned Arnold Newman to photograph Krupp the German industrialist and war criminal. Newman initially turned down the job as he felt that Krupp was the devil incarnate. Newsweek agreed with his opinion and told him to get on with it. So Krupp was photographed in such a way to make him appear sinister.

With all photographs, and it does not matter whether they are journalistic or not, there several meanings or realities. There is the actual meaning or reality of the event, then there is the meaning that the photographer gives to the photo and finally there is the meaning that the viewer gives. Unfortunately the photographer has no control over the later.

All press photographs are the result of some form of manipulation. Whether its the arrangement of the people, the angle of view, the use of light, the use of colour or black and white. How the photo is processed and printed can effect the emotion behind it, the crop. All these elements add to the photo. we all carry our internal biases and when we photograph a person or event those biases come to the fore whether we realise it or not.

Arnold Newman once asked Steiglitz if he should re-touch his photos. Steiglitz replied "I don't care what you do with that negative. You want to spit on it, retouch it, grind it under foot, whatever... the only think that matters is the finished picture. If its honest it will look honest. If its dishonest, you and everyone else can tell."

1:30 AM  

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