Valencia, Hefe, X-Pro II — such obscure names are familiar to the hundreds of millions monthly active Instagram users around the world, including a growing population of photojournalists who are embracing the photo-editing application. And with its popularity among journalists comes controversy and ethical debates about the extent of which these photographs represent reality, especially when the photographer makes a conscious decision to add digital filters.
“Photojournalism, journalists, and journalism, in this day and age, have a really high standard to do their best to represent truth or as close to truth as they can get,” said Koci Hernandez, an assistant professor for New Media at University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Photographic filters aren’t new
For Hernandez, a minimal use of digital filtration is acceptable, especially considering the fact that photographic filters have existed for a few centuries. There once was a time when photographs actually had the same kind of tint and the same kind of result depending on the film that was used, said Hernandez, citing the National Geographic magazine’s preferred use of Kodachrome 64 film, a film that produced images with a certain color palette and warm hues.
In 2011, 1000memories.com (now part of Ancestry.com), a website that helps users organize and share old photos to create family trees, successfully recreated Instagram-filtered photographs using vintage cameras and film, including Polaroids. Combinations were tested in order to determine the formulas behind the digital filters of the smartphone application. The Polaroid SX-70 with Polaroid 600 film created the Earlybird filter, the Lomo LC-A and a cross-processed Velvia 50 film resulted in the X-Pro II filter, and the Yashica Mat 124 using Velvia RVP100 film produced the Nashville filter, to name a few.
“Filters are merely a tonality shift, for the most part, and that’s been going on forever,” said Hernandez. “Black and white imagery, which is a staple of photojournalism, isn’t reality because nobody sees in black and white unless you’re a dog. That’s an accepted ethical practice.”
It’s a “fear of this democratic device” that has focused less attention on the content of the photographs, said Hernandez.
“I’m really more concerned about where that camera is focused, what issue it’s pointed at, what’s in the frame, what the content of the image is, than the color tint of the image,” he said.
Are photojournalistic Instagrams a double standard?
For Charles Apple, the focus page editor of the Orange County Register, a local Californian newspaper, photographs taken by journalists and updated with Instagram have no place in the news publication industry.
“The simple fact is: If a shooter or a designer runs a filter on a photo, she can be fired,” said Apple in an e-mail. “But if a shooter uses the built-in filters in Instagram, it seems like that’s OK.”
The editor said he doesn’t mind the social media aspect of the application, but the filters violate the visual ethics standards that newspapers, photographers, the Society for News Design and others have set over the past decade. Apple doesn’t see a difference between an automatically-applied filter from Instagram and a manually-applied one from Photoshop.
“Altered content is altered content,” he said, adding that news outlets might use a photo more as an illustration than breaking news, but the photo should be properly labeled.
Instagramming in conflict areas
David Guttenfelder, the Associated Press chief Asia photographer, was named TIME Magazine’s Instagram Photographer of the Year in 2013 for his insider images of the mysterious North Korea. As one of a handful of photojournalists who are allowed to enter one of the most isolated countries of the world — and be guided by government tour guides — Guttenfelder has been able to share his experiences in real time by using Instagram, thanks to North Korea’s recent installation of a 3G network for its visitors.
The photographer uses the application’s filters on some of his photographs, giving the images Instagram’s trademark nostalgic feel despite the subjects’ already outdated setting. But is the seven-time World Press Photo award winner exempt from the debate?
North Korean men on an airport transport bus headed to the Air Koryo flight for Beijing.
"North Korean men on an airport transport bus headed to the Air Koryo flight for Beijing."
Apple commends the idea of photojournalists using smartphones to shoot war zones, such as Guttenfelder’s intimate yet revealing photographs of life in Pyongyang. “I’d prefer them to shoot with no filters, though,” he said.
Kate Knibbs, a contributing writer for Digital Trends, is quick to note that Guttenfelder is not only in North Korea with his phone. The photojournalist does take photographs with a standard camera.
“I don’t think we’re losing anything because he’s using Instagram,” she said in an e-mail. “I think it would, of course, be better if photojournalists from multiple outlets were able to share their impressions, because right now it’s just David, Jean Lee, and a few others.”
But how many of us use filters?
With truth and accuracy at the forefront for photojournalists, taking pictures without filters is the ideal.
“I hope the more traditional ways of processing photos carries on as well because we don’t need the Toaster filter on everything,” said Knibbs. “In some cases it’s important we have images that are unfiltered, that represent the closest approximation to reality.”
In a study done in March of 2013, Marketo, a marketing automation software, published an infographic detailing the statistics behind Instagram. It was revealed that 43% of Instagram users used the Normal filter, which is no filter at all. Granted, a portion of this percentage are users who use other applications to upgrade their snapshots, but a hefty population still sport the “#nofilter” hashtag in their captions.
And as social media and photojournalism continue to evolve and intertwine, Instagram is still considered a trend.
“It’s a fad,” said Hernandez. “We’ll all look back and think, ‘Oh my gosh, we were all wearing tube tops and leg warmers’ as a photographic movement.”
This story was first published in 2014.