Digital Manipulation and the False Equivalence of “Truth” in Photography.”

The same week the Steve McCurry studio Photoshop controversy came up, I had some professional interaction concerning digital photo manipulation with a photographer, publisher and teacher who works at the very intersection of “pro” and “amateur.” He engages in compositing, but because his clients are photo-enthusiasts and consumers-at-large, not editors or design professionals, this was not an inside baseball-type discussion of contest rules or journalistic ethics. The questions raised were broader (and therefore more interesting to me) because many more photographs are being produced by people in his circle than are made by famous professionals. And of course most viewers of photographs are not professionals either.

Reacting to the McCurry situation, some online writers expressed disappointment or even outrage because they thought they’d been deceived. Others took a sort of apologist viewpoint as they described the vagueness of “truth.” I think this latter view engages in a bit of false equivalence. All humans have biases, so of course all photographers produce work that is subjective, and in some cases, that viewpoint is what makes their pictures interesting. Sophisticated journalists and documentarians acknowledge this. Subjectivity is not a choice, but the degree of darkroom or computer manipulation, and the context of how we present our work is. Everyone who photographs has those choices.

So do artists in other fields. A great novel or fictional film can reveal “truths,” and as long as it’s presented as a product of imagination we feel enlightened, not ripped off. Similarly, we don’t engage with a fine David Lachapelle photograph the same way as we do as one by Eugene Richards. Lachapelle is a surrealist and the style and presentation of his work make that apparent. Richards is a realist of great integrity which makes his work powerful for different reasons.

When photographers working in the documentary, photojournalistic or naturalist context covertly change elements around after the fact, but are presenting the pictures as real scenes as viewed and captured, the objects, people or animals in their pictures become props just like models in a Lachapelle, except they’re probably not getting paid.

Even if a photographer is up-front about manipulation, their pictures should be viewed with entirely different aesthetic standards as more “straight” work. If the goal is a sort of visual or conceptual expression with no technical parameters, that’s fine, but the bar has been raised very high and the work is now competing with painting, drawing, sculpture and other visual mediums that emanate primarily from the artist’s mind.

Photography’s greatest strength — what differentiates it from other visual art, or almost any art for that matter — is the sense that all or part of an individual photograph has recorded something that existed for a moment in time and space, outside of one person’s perception. The meaning is open to interpretation, but on it’s own, the photograph captures some shared reality between subject, photographer and viewer.

Unlike when I view fashion, advertising or surrealist photography, for me the value of documentary type photography relies primarily on this sort of shared “truth.” I want to have some faith that what’s in the frame was what was in the scene. If the first question I ask myself when I view an image of this type is: “How much is it photoshopped?,” I’ve already started to lose interest. I wonder if now, or in the near future, most people will be subconsciously asking themselves the same question about practically every picture they see. Maybe they already are.

California-based photojournalist. Worked on assignment in dozens of countries including Afghanistan, Bhutan, Iraq and Yemen. Twitter@DavidButow

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