Thursday, December 3, 2009

Truth and Manipulation in Photojournalism

There currently is a lot of attention directed at preserving a notion of photography as 'truth' that is unmanipulated. The basic argument behind all of this is that retouching is untruthful and therefore must be regulated. If we can regulate it, then we can trust photography and photojournalism again. And that is basically where the argument stops, for reasons I will explain.

The latest addition to the long line of photo manipulation guidelines is World Press Photo's recent "rule" in their 2010 call for entries. It reads:
"The content of an image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards and may at its discretion request the original, unretouched file as recorded by the camera or an untoned scan of the negative or slide."
(via PDN and Jim Johnson)
The problem of course is that the rule is as arbitrary as the notion of truth in photography itself. You can, and many will, drive a truck through the holes in that system. The "rule" does not address the evolving nature of currently accepted standards or deal with their arbitrary nature and roots in the marketplace. What was practiced routinely by Life Magazine would never fly today, and what we are capable of doing in-camera today was beyond imagination in 1950's.

It is however entirely possible to create a straight forward, enforceable and universally consistent set of allowable digital post-processing practices for photojournalism. Here is what that could look like:
Images must be shot in camera raw format, and a version of the camera raw file must always be preserved as a baseline. Not a single pixel can be added, moved or removed from within the frame. Post-processing is limited to adjusting levels for white point/black point as well as overall tone distribution. Curves use is limited to minor contrast and tonal corrections. Overall color adjustments are to correct casts only. Local masking and color corrections are limited to balancing the image and opening shadows or correcting thin highlights.
The reason that a flat, limiting standard like this would add value to photojournalism exists in its implied function as evidence gathering. This would set up an important understanding with the audience as to how these photographs perform in an evidentiary capacity and what the rules are for how they are processed.

A straight forward set of rules such as the one I have laid out above does not in any way, though, address the main problem that underlies the whole kerfuffle, which is the fact that photographs can easily and skillfully be manipulated to serve a wide variety of purposes, even within such tight constrictions as I have outlined above. There are no rules that can control the medium's capacity to do just that, and once you start down the slope of trying to control it, each restriction points to successive manipulations that are possible and practicable.

Let me explain in real world working terms.

Let's say that I am sent to photograph a woman who is in the middle of a high profile legal battle. When I walk into her house, I can see that her living room is neat, with a mess of paperwork spread out on the table. She is average height, 5'7" (I am 6'2"). I take pictures using available light and I never ask to her move or pose in any way. I photograph her sitting at the table looking at me over a pile of paperwork. She looks a little harried and disheveled in context with the mess on the table. I also photograph her standing by her fireplace. I shoot in a vertical format crouching down slightly so that the camera is looking at her from mid torso height. She looks strong and powerful in the frame, looking down at the viewer. Next I photograph her from my full height looking down at her, she is looking up. Her head is slightly increased in size in relation to her body by the angle. She looks brainy, but smaller. Then I photograph her looking out her window in soft natural light. She appears winsome and romantic.

The shoot is done. I leave. The pictures are processed and delivered, and the editors have a wide range of images to chose from, all which make different arguments about who this person is in relation to her story. Each is a manipulation of sorts, and the image that most suits the position of the story will be selected to run.

Within the body of images that I made, one publication who is against her legal position might pick an image where she looks harried, while another in support of her might pick an image where she looks powerful. Both are shot within the accepted constraints of photojournalism, and both are representations of her that make very different arguments.

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