This exercise required me to read an article, ‘The Real and the Digital’ by Liz Wells, which explored the impact of digital photography and how the widespread emergence of this technology has increased the number of debates on nature of photography, in particular photojournalism.
I would suggest that whilst the technology has again brought the debate to the forefront, there has probably always been opposing viewpoints as to how ‘real’ or close to reality a photograph can be. The core difference is that in the past, photo manipulation took a great deal of effort, and serious photo editing was limited to obsessives that took their art to another level, such as the surrealists where the point of the image was to make it ‘other worldly’. Years ago, a photojournalist would have to be quite single-minded to deliberately change an image – it took above average knowledge, effort and access to dark rooms to do it successfully.
Nowadays a much bigger percentage of photographs have some level of editing, be it purely aesthetically, to improve lighting for example, to physically remove annoying objects that get in the way of a good composition, or to improve human forms and features. This commonplace manipulation is now widely regarded as just another step in the process of making an image, almost a core element of the production. So as well as manipulation being intrinsic to making a successful image, on top of increased accessibility to a vast range of easier methods/software, it is somewhat inevitable that there now exists almost ‘accepted’ cynicism in photojournalism. Effectively, everyone is doing it and therefore every newsworthy image has the potential to have been edited possibly deliberately, to skew a story.
For me, photojournalism will always be an interpretation of an event, where the photographer stamps his style on a scene in order to convey his own message about what he is seeing and wants to record. Viewpoint (to deliberately move around an object to change the background), proximity (a closer image may feel more intimidating, gritty or dangerous), choice of shutter speed, etc., impact how a photograph might be interpreted in subtle ways. Whilst this is not deliberate image manipulation, it can have similar outcomes and yet the debate rarely seems to touch on these elements of ‘truth’ within a photograph.
In the article, David Campany points out that almost a third of all news photographs are video frame ‘grabs’. Similarly, this subtle choice of which slice of time to freeze by the photographer or news editor, also means that the event or happening is open to yet more interpretation.
So as the technology continues to evolve and open up yet more choices to the photographer, so it is likely that the debate will rage on and interestingly, our thirst for photojournalism and newsworthy images appears to still be growing. This may in part be due to how quickly we can digest images in an information heavy world compared to the written word, however our reliance on these images still seems rife, despite the potential for visual distortion of the truth.
Wells, Liz. (2009) ‘The Real and the Digital’, Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 73-75.