In March, I wrote an article about Troilo being stripped of his World Press Photo award. This particular case centred on the misrepresentation of facts, because Troilo allegedly included staged photos in his series that were not from the subject city. World-class photojournalists have been pulled up for excessive image manipulation, staging shots and all sorts in the past and will continue to be in the future. The list of potential transgressions is as subjective as it is endless and in many cases, such issues only come to light when a photographer’s work is subjected to particular scrutiny (such as when images win international awards). Competition is tight and this is the expectation not only of the public, but competing photographers.
This thought leaves me with a question, though: how many images are heavily doctored in the course of everyday journalism, where there is limited inclination to inspect and verify? Taking it a step further, has anyone ever given this issue much thought in the context of non-professionals? I suspect most of us would probably shrug our shoulders and ask ‘is this topic even relevant to amateurs? The images are not being used to inform opinion in the media and they aren’t competing for global awards.‘ While largely true, the boundary between professional and amateur photographers is more blurred now than ever and it would be presumptuous to assume that amateur shot images are not having an impact. At a minimum, they are contributing to our idea of what photography is and the standard of images being produced. Many amateur images play a similar role with regard to our understanding of what the world is like. Just think about the travel images we see, whether showcased in glossy magazines, used commercially or being shared on social media.
Take this shot, for example. I am guessing this is not the first buffalo racing photograph you have seen. I know that I have seen so many that I quite literally feel nauseous when I see another. This is not only because I expect the photoshop to have been excessive (and it usually is), but also because I have for some time long suspected that the best shots are being staged on an industrial scale (and not actually taking place during actual races). Who are these photographers and how is it that they are producing so many seemingly identical shots? Why are there never any other people, spectators (or competitors) in these award-winning frames? I had given it little further thought until I came across this article by iso500pix.com: when getting the best shot is just plain wrong.
The boundary between staged photos and posing documentary subjects can be a fine one, but the article paints an interesting picture: there is enough of a demand for ‘picture perfect’ images that there are now micro-industries sprouting up to support it. The point being made by the article is that the desire for award winning images can be so overwhelming that people are happy to ignore (in one cited case case) the mistreatment of animals in order to ‘get the shot’. Of course, the vast majority of photographers utilising ‘subject actors’ have nothing other than good intentions: they’re on holiday and want to take nice pictures. So is there still anything to discuss? I think so.
I know from my three visits to Varanasi, India, that many of the most visually compelling holy men are essentially photo-buskers. They make themselves available for pictures and charge a fee for their time. These professional ‘holy men’ (called a sadhu) are invariably the most appealing to photographers because they dress for the job and stand out like a male peacock among their more drably dressed companions. When I see photographic portfolios from Varanasi, I often find myself smiling because I am anticipating seeing the familiar face of one particular ‘holy man,’ who is hugely popular with tourists. This chap’s face is everywhere and I can’t help but admire his business savvy. You can watch tourists looking around for photographs and note the look of excitement as they discover him: ‘Yes!’ he’s the one’. But it’s a conveyor belt and I have often wondered if he lives an austere, holy life or drives back to a swish apartment. Tourists get the photos they aspire to and the sadhu makes a living, so clearly there is no harm done.
But what does this mean for the resultant photographs? Are they real travel photos, or ‘faux travel’ whereby the photographer has jumped from one ‘paid’n staged’ scene to another?
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