No documentary, reportage, street or landscape photographer can avoid dealing with the matter of fidelity. While it is clear that we are all indescribably charming magnets for the opposite sex, this is not what I am referring to. I am talking about the relationship between what we see (or have seen, but ignored) and the final image. When we talk about a lack of fidelity, it is only a short leap to cry ‘deception’, but is this fair? Is fidelity horribly over-rated in the first place?
This question is a constant problem for some photographers, yet I often find myself confused as to why it has to be so complicated. If we understand why we take photographs and what photography actually is to us (as well as the history of photography) we will have our answer. This is not to say it will be the same answer as the next person, but why should that matter? Many photographers have found their personal peace in their work (albeit with occasional ethical wrangles) but for others it can be quite torturous. It can actually act as a major impediment to producing work: the desire is there, but we can be aware that we are putting a spin on things and therefore guilt denies us that free, liberating expression. I therefore thought I would write a few words to share my personal opinion.
Firstly, I am going to share something I wrote on a forum a few nights ago, after an evening with friends and about six large G&Ts. I wrote it in response to someone who was struggling with the post-processing conundrum: how much is too much? He was also troubled by the fact that even when he felt like he had not overdone the PP, his images were enough of a departure from the actual scene he saw that he felt a little like a fraud. This is what I wrote:
“Perhaps ask why you take photographs. This is crucial.
If it is to show what things actually are, then consider the effect of individual perspective and forget creativity, art etc. All these things are disallowed. You must now pursue the impossible universal truth and you will not be able to ever present a single photograph that is not torn apart based on this premise.
If it is to show how you feel, or how you are responding to something, there not much point or purpose in claiming true objectivity. But since when has this been a bad thing?
If you photograph to communicate… to share how you respond to something, we need some of you in there. This means your photo, your post-processing… whatever it takes to bring the viewer into your world. The world you observe and which we share is… something we can experience for ourselves. Your perspective… your subjective response is much more interesting.
We are all alone in this world, constrained by our own craniums and staring out from behind two eyes, somewhere. I see the world through my eyes. I feel what I see, but when I look at other people’s photographs I want to see what you feel. If you just show an unfiltered view, I have no interest. I do not look at photographs to understand the world in perfect, impartial, non-human terms. I look at photographs to better understand what it means to be human, to be a ‘you’ that is also a ‘me’… just like me.
However you wish to achieve this is up to, well….. you.”
For reasons probably best ascribed to the wonders of Hendrik’s gin, this is probably the simplest position I have ever reached on the subject. Isn’t it ironic that, engaged in what is universally regarded as a creative pursuit, there is still this fear of deviating from the literal recording of images? I am not suggesting for a minute that striving for straight, relatively unfiltered images, is not hugely admirable and rewarding at times, but I do think it is sometimes over-rated and of limited importance, even when and where we assume it to have value. It’s definitely something we need to approach with caution and a huge dose of awareness. Unless you are shooting bacteria under a microscope, I can think of few forms of photography where subjectivity does not play a large and often desirable role.
The severe difficulties of presenting an objective, untainted truth are everywhere. One only has to look at the most famous photographs shot of the Spanish Civil War, by Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, at the dawn of photojournalism to recognize the dangers of accepting things literally. Capa’s famous ‘falling soldier’ image may have been faked (along with many others), which might appear shocking… if you are not aware that both Capa and Taro were ardent supporters of the Communists and therefore already entirely partisan well before the image was or was not faked. They were using their photographs to influence the debate and it affected what they shot, how they shot it and how it was presented.
I am not criticizing them for doing so -not at all – only highlighting the fact that we have two photographers who were not impartial producing what is clearly ‘reportage’. That sentence would make people very uncomfortable today when applied to a modern example. It was acceptable then, but seems to have become unacceptable, which I find ironic in an era of Military ‘embeds’. These are the bread and butter of modern conflict photography, yet despite the absence of photography from ‘the other side’, we are still comfortable accepting it as inherently truthful because of presumptions about the medium. Lessons from the beginning of photojournalism should educate us otherwise.
When one talks about the various high profile press awards, one needn’t look far to realize that personal politics, beliefs or emotional responses are stamped all over the photographers’ images. Again, I am not being a critical – heck, what use would photojournalists be if they were not human – just highlighting the fact that in photojournalism, just as with journalism, everything goes through a hugely subjective human filter. I wonder whether the concept of truthfulness in reportage is best replaced with the phrase ‘our truth’, which at least recognizes the fact that there is usually a confluence of interests and a similarity between viewer and reporter beliefs well before the photograph is seen by the viewer. Again, I am not being critical here. Many photojournalists are constantly striving to see things through the most impartial eyes possible, but ultimately they all fail (as do we) – it’s only a matter of extent. The filter will always be there s long as people are deciding where to point the camera.
The influence of personal perceptions is of course very different to the integrity issues associated with adding ‘extra smoke plumes’ to a burning city, right? Well, I am not sure it is that simple. Imagine a photograph of burning body of someone from ethnic group A…. a young teenager, with his whole life ahead of him, lying in the street. That photo could have enormous impact and send out a potent message about who is doing what and who is to blame. The problem is that we do not know if the photographer passed by dead women and children from ethnic group B and, even if he/she didn’t, whether the editors decided not to show them. This begs the question as to which is worse; the technical manipulation of the smoke or the crucial contextual omission in the ethnic conflict? I think in objective terms, it has to be the latter, yet we tend to spend more time thinking about and discussing the former. Certainly the ‘cloned smoke’ is a clear attempt to manipulate what was actually captured, but there is far greater scope for manipulation in what was not captured, or what was and why. The latter has been hotly debated in relation to the below photographs following the Haiti earthquake. The 15 year old girl, Fabienne Cherisma, is said to have been shot for looting and the first shot won the Swedish Picture of the Year award. The second shot shows the actual context, which appeared to show the press working very hard with the scene in front of them. To many, the perceived ‘truth’ has been changed by the knowledge that the scene depicted did not exist in the assumed context. The context in fact included about a dozen photographers labouring over the same scene. ‘Manufactured poignancy’ might be the complaint.
The final image, however (below) shows the girl’s body, the orientation of her arm and the framed image of the flower to have been moved. Nobody knows who moved her, but one might assume that it was to produce a ‘different photo’. Having been in not dissimilar situations myself, there are often local residents happy to oblige such requests for a little money and photographers who might be happy to accept such an offer. ‘This is abhorrent and unethical’, they say… ‘how could anyone move her body, alter the truth and then photograph it as the truth’? What about if they wanted to show the pictures that she had allegedly stolen – the pink flowers. By doing so, the photographer would be able overcome the chance positioning of girl and objects and ultimately convey a more of what people might describe as ‘the truth of what this even was about’. This would be ironic if we could be sure that image of the flowers had anything to do with anything, so once again we are back to not knowing much about the truth. All we can be sure of is that this i what the photographer wanted to show, for better or worse.
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