Photo-manipulation is perhaps the biggest single topic concerning photography today and is rarely out of the news in one way or another. It regularly overshadows the ‘art’ of photography as whole. Photoshop itself is 25 years old this year and Adobe’s flagship software application has now become synonymous with photo-manipulation. In its wake, for better or for worse, a vast proliferation of tools have been spawned to do a job that once could only be undertaken by those specialising in manipulation. Now anyone, regardless of their expertise (and one could argue, intent), can change the entire look of an image and with it the meaning.
The early days of photo-manipulation may seem unsophisticated and even archaic to the tech savvy public today but many techniques developed in those early days are still current today. The technique used in Carleton E. Watkins‘ early landscape photography (c.1860) was a process of adding two negatives of different exposure to create a single well exposed image on one sheet of photographic paper. The photographer would choose from a library of pre-developed negatives with various types of clouds and use them to fill the often over-exposed area of sky according to the dynamic he or she was trying to achieve (p.11, Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop – 2012). This is very similar to the way a photographer would use Photoshop today to do the same thing.
Even though these techniques existed in the analogue world, the lack of insight by the general public meant that it wasn’t really questioned by those who didn’t understand or more likely had no access to the subject matter. Now, of course, we are all complicit in altering photographs almost everyday. From adding filters in Instagram to full multi-layer composites consisting of myriad images, we all have a hand in changing the photographic world we live in. Indeed, when we feel we have taken a photograph that is so good it doesn’t need altering we feel driven to tag it #nofilter for the benefit of our audience. In turn this means the assumption by the general public is likely to be that the image they see before them has been altered rather than it hasn’t.
This is something that many photographic outlets feel is a stigma and are battling hard to get away from. Chief among these outlets are those driven by photo-journalism and the ‘truth’ that photography is able to lay before us. Photojournalistic agencies such as Reuters and National Geographic as well as many newspapers and websites have pages of guidelines for their photographers as well as their contributors to follow. This has become even more fundamental as organisations turn from employing in-house photographers, where the editor would have direct contact with the end product, to freelance photographers who work, process and send their images from the field. The final image that ends up on the editor’s desk may have had significant alteration but such is the quality of the alteration it can be very difficult to pick up on. The organisations mentioned above certainly want to influence their readership but are keen to do it without the act of photo-manipulation.
Why is this attention to manipulation important in photo-journalism?
Photography has long been seen as the ‘truth’ of a situation or event. From wars to sports to major news events the camera, being a dumb machine, can only make an image of what is presented in front of it. It represents a pure fraction-of-a-second of ’truth’. Of course, that ‘truth’ is manipulated at source by many outside influences such as the photographer themselves, the environment (geographic and political) and so on, but I am interested in the manipulation of the image in conjunction with photo-journalism. Specifically I am interested in the digital manipulation of the image. I am calling it the ‘image’ in this case as to call it the photograph may be disingenuous to the viewer. I feel that once the RAW photograph from the camera has been imported in to the software, anything proceeding that becomes in one way or another manipulation. Of course with RAW files this is a necessity and cannot be avoided, but I think photographers make the photograph with the camera and the eye. With the software they make the image.
Fred Ritchin says in ‘After Photography’ (2009, p.27), that he thinks the digital era came to photography in 1982 when National Geographic’s editors modified an image to appear on the front of one of their magazines.
It was cropped from a horizontal image to a vertical one and one of the pyramids moved behind another to make a stronger feature of the three camels in relief.
Ritchin says, “it was a banal change“. I would suggest that a for magazine with the sphere of influence of National Geographic this couldn’t be further from the truth. Regardless of how pictorially ‘banal’ this may be, National Geographic have gained a photographic angle that simply did not exist at the time of making the photograph. The readership have been misled and ethical questions arise from that.
This action by one publication opened the floodgates to many more to come. The Director of Photography at the time, Robert E. Gilka, likened the introduction of the technique to, “limited nuclear warfare. There ain’t none.” I think this quote shows just how strongly he felt about this intervention and although Ritchin makes no mention of it, one supposes that Gilka was not very impressed. Ironically, National Geographic are now one of those organisations campaigning to keep the honesty in photography. One might say they are poacher turned gamekeeper and have learned lessons along the way.
The maze of rules, regulations and guidelines concerning manipulation makes the area a daunting one to look into. There are oceans of grey areas that overlap between well-meaning organisations all putting in their two-penneth to make the photo-journalist and photographer’s world a more concise and informed one.
Here is one example of what I consider conflicting information between two well-respected photographic organisations, the Royal Photographic Society and the World Press Photo organisation (famous for their adherence to sets of guidelines). In February 2015, The Royal Photographic Societies’ monthly Journal published it’s guidelines to photo-manipulation and acceptable limits between ‘creative’ and ‘pictorial’ images (p.108). To remain pictorial they state that, “minor distractions can be removed, tone and perspective can be adjusted”. Bearing in mind, of course, that World Press Photo images should be pictorial in nature in 2010, the organisation disqualified Stepan Rudik, one of that years winners, concluding he had digitally manipulated his work (source – Petapixel.com).
It wasn’t the act of cropping the image or the further processing to black and white that was the problem. It was the act of removing a foot which appears under the fighters bandaged hand as can be seen in the top right image above. My reaction is that, according to RPS Journal’s guidelines, this is a “minor distraction” and as such it could be removed without the pictorial element of the image being affected. So here we have two organisations that, as a photographer I would look towards for guidance on these matters, giving what I would say is conflicting guidelines. I am not saying that all organisations should have the same guidelines, it would kill any sort of creativity, but the disparate nature of the guidelines at the moment makes trying to stick to them very difficult indeed. World Press Photo have their guidelines here and also link to IFJ Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists for further clarification of their entrance rules. I would say that these guidelines are woolly at best (point 12 states “only retouching that conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards”) and I wonder what principles World Press Photo are adhering to when choosing the winners. I cannot imagine that when the entrants submit their work they are able to tell whether they have complied with the ‘rules’ or not. World Press Photo are almost as famous (infamous) for their rule related disqualifications as they are for the competition itself which surely can’t be a good thing for the industry. The now insist that the RAW files are sent in with the JPEGs, this in turn led to a huge amount disqualifications in the 2015 competition, notably in the sports section where only two prizes instead of the usual three were awarded. RPS on the other are at least trying to be subjective and constructive with their guidelines. However it is still a complicated read and in their efforts to clarify the subject the waters still end up feeling somewhat muddied.
Of course, I don’t work in the industry and can only look from the outside in. But even from the outside it looks quite messy. Another example that caught my eye was that of Israel’s Haredi newspaper The Announcer – HaMevaser (source – The Telegraph). During the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier this year, there were shows of solidarity held by luminaries in communities both local and international. One such was the walk in Paris which was the largest show of strength in Paris’ history of this type. The Announcer covers the story leading with the image below.
Which looks normal enough until you see the original photograph take by the photographer present which looks like this.
All of a sudden you start to notice irregularities between the original and the published version. All of the women in the photo have mysteriously disappeared from view having been cropped or photoshopped from the image. The women include German chancellor Angela Merkel and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo. The fact they are well-known or important is not really the issue. The main point of interest is that this Ultra-orthodox newspaper has decided to alter the ‘truth’ by dismissing these women through the magic of manipulation (both physically and metaphorically). Of course the irony of this happening directly after and because of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo publication would be almost laughable if it wasn’t so serious, the editors perpetuating the very thing they are reporting. This certainly isn’t the first case of this happening because of religious beliefs but does demonstrate how easy it is to warp the ‘truth’ through image manipulation.
The arguments for and against the manipulation of photographs and images can and will rage on and on. One wonders whether the whole thing will go full circle just as some audiophiles have regressed (progressed?) from MP3 to vinyl or whether this is just the tip of the shiny digital iceberg (which is more likely in my opinion such is the allure of binary). Will this iceberg sink the photograph as we know it or will we see it float back to the surface of these rough seas?