The widening gap between photograph & manipulated image

by Brian Quillinan – 18th Sept 2015

wppI guess it doesn’t appear shocking that 20% of finalists were kicked from the 2015 World Press Photo awards. Maybe its simply a sign of the times. Bravo I say for the committee to take a stance against the onslaught of over enhanced picture candy we are being fed at accelerating speed via internet media. What is notable about this stance is that many of the banned images were stunning [certainly by the mid road standards of average folk] whether they were enhanced or not. The committee enforce guidelines where the unprocessed raw file must be submitted as well as the final image and I imagine they use sophisticated software to cross check whether people are trying to pull the wool over their eyes. It seems they find it more important to take a strict posture on this over simply allowing the most stunning images rule the roost because of their eh, ability to stun. Why, you may ask have they sacrificed such rich offerings in such unceremonious fashion?

World Press MD Lars Boering said ‘It seems some photographers can’t resist the temptation to aesthetically enhance their images during post-processing, either by removing small details to “clean up” an image, or sometimes by excessive toning that constitutes material change to the image. Both types of retouching clearly compromise the integrity of the image.’

So their position has to do with preserving integrity. There could also be the notion of the greater good coming into play here. I don’t consider the following an opinion but a fact with humongous amounts of data supporting it. The internet is awash with heavily processed images and as a result more than any time in the past we are at risk of getting lied to. Its weighing down heavily on the name of photography. No one has to take my word for what I have suggested, the information surrounds us at every juncture. How then is this potentially so detrimental?

Is it not simply a sign of the times, something we simply should accept along with our boring jobs, our dizzying mortgages and our ever more grumpy while ageing other halves? Well, no it simply shouldn’t be and doesn’t have to be accepted, when it is passed off as something more honest than it is. Its ruining the ability for honest workers to be treated as such. There are more than echoes of the boy who cried wolf here. Why make a big deal of this?

xrayI’m going to use an analogy to press the point. I’m not a medical expert so the following is [I presume on some level] a simplification of what actually happens. However, when you go for an x-ray at the clinic the nurse gets you to stand in front of an area and she presses a button to initiate the x-ray. What she gets back from the machine is an x-ray. She goes to the doctor and says here is the x-ray. The doctor then knows what he is looking at and that is of vital importance to a successful diagnosis. Now if you were able to take the x-ray and put it into your favourite photo editing software and enhance it so that the information has far greater clarity and if you could reproduce this data to look like an x-ray it is no longer an x-ray. If you brought it to the doctor for diagnosis [whilst calling it a plain x-ray] he unknowingly may make a critical error of judgement because what he’s looking at he may believe is something its not. There may on occasions be a good reason to enhance an x-ray [on the basis the doctor is informed] but I imagine that in most cases a doctor will prefer to look at something he already has a clear understanding of to help aid a confident diagnosis.

You may well say well we are not all doctors, and you would be entirely correct. Not every ones job is to study images, some people are fine with the idea of simply enjoying them. However, if that is the case you have to accept something. You are not seeking to be an expert of the field. You might just be there to be entertained. I reiterate, I have no problem with this except the following.. Why then should you be labelled with the same terminology as an expert? In Michael Sweets recent scathing analysis of what is happening on-line with imagery and the endless supply of self appointed experts in the field, attacking while trying to bolster an ego in a landscape of ever diminishing returns, how come the industry beyond the internet pays little attention? Because they are the doctors and they have become too aware what an enhanced x-ray looks like. They don’t like the idea of misdiagnosis.. it creates problems down the line. All on-line nurses should take note.

To get to the crux of my argument requires introducing the idea of integrity of practice being a defining feature of what photography itself is and should be. Every reputable newspaper [if indeed there is such a thing] on the planet has a code of conduct related to the idea of not being seen to manipulate viewers with false imagery. They realise that if a front page image is outed as a fake after being taken for granted as not being so, the integrity of their publication is instantly lost and may be unrecoverable. Photography itself risks the same wholesale loss of integrity.

magazine-250069_640Now you may say that a fashion magazine routinely manipulates virtually every image from cover to cover [except seemingly for paparazzi images of run down celebrities which some can never get enough of]. Indeed that is a valid point but that’s why we distinguish it as a fashion magazine. I would remind you that for the most part only our children pick up those magazines believing them to be real. Shame on the rest of us for not protecting them from these lies. Its not just a fashion issue though, look at any billboard and ask your self how close is what you are seeing to what was photographed? Again, how is this endless barrage of manipulated imagery affecting our children?

So social issues aside, why should photography be labelled as faithful or manipulated? I think a simple answer is that so many people for example tone-map images to increase popularity who don’t want their audience to realise they are being manipulated with so they say nothing, and simply allow it to be labelled as documentary, or more commonly are happy for it to be referred to as street photography. In some cases the viewers ask “Wow, how did you do this?” and gets an answer of “1/20s f22 iso200.” or “just a casual snap.” This is misleading in the extreme. Like a good politician they feel like they are avoiding the question and thus avoiding lying. The black flags must be raised on this type of deception. It is fast eroding the integrity that documentary photography has always stood for. Therefore it needs another name. Simple as. That way those who simply like to enjoy the images of others can do without tarnishing the integrity that photography has taken so long to build.

320px-Before_and_after_HDR_(6747894381)On top of all this, lets for a moment forget the integrity of photography. Those who routinely enhance images most often do so because they are unwilling to find out the optimum conditions to photograph in the first place. Their lack of patience when dealing with environment is catered for after the fact. They are not learning anything about photography, yet are learning to gain more likes through calculated manipulation.

There is another issue at play here also, and that is the issue with consumer level cameras [particularly on phones] auto enhancing images before you even see them. This issue while making the camera appear more impressive carries the side effect of widening the gap between faithful and enhanced without the photographers knowledge. HDR buttons can be useful for certain situations yet if they become a standard always on feature then a form of software manipulation has been introduced to photography by stealth. I recently purchased a Sony a6000 and found its default HDR setting was ‘auto’. Not cool.

While technically a black & white conversion is a form of image manipulation but I think this isn’t specifically serving to deceive. The purpose of shooting digital and converting isn’t normally about pretending you used black & white film. Personally I don’t care which format the photographer uses. Heavily tone mapping a sky is often about pretending the weather was something it wasn’t, or HDR on a wall about pretending the light quality was something it wasn’t. Removing unsightly details from an image is about pretending the scene was something it wasn’t. I’m not saying these practices should be banned, just explained in an honest manner. Is that kind of integrity too much to expect today? Worryingly, sometimes you see a mentality on-line where people say, well everyone else manipulates their images anyway, so I may as well. I would suggest that people speak for themselves on the issue instead of trying to justify their own dishonesty with presumptions. This kind of justification undoubtedly leads down a very slippery slope.

The literal meaning of photograph is ‘light drawing.’ The camera is a scientific instrument which no different than a seismograph or x-ray machine gathers information without bias [that is once it has been aimed by one subject at another and the initiation button has been triggered]. The resulting light drawing [if you are to take the meaning of the word literally] is a measure of accurately recorded photon data whose mapping attempts to redefine what it was pointed at. Rearranging that data no longer makes it a light drawing and arguably its no longer a photograph.. it is now a manipulated image.

Elliott_Erwitt_in_the_Westlicht_Museum_of_Photography,_ViennaYou may suggest that that Ansel Adams would have disagreed totally [worth noting is that he wasn’t trying to pretend there was no manipulation]. That may be true and I am perfectly fine with that idea but I would remind people that someone who heavily advocates the idea of making a clear distinction between a photograph and a manipulated image is Elliott Erwitt. Now many people who see themselves as under the “street photography ” umbrella should realise [if they already don’t] that this man was one of the most influential in the genre they claim to represent. He I’m pretty sure avoids on-line forums [like many other experts] in part because of this abundance of misrepresentation. I would suggest to all the self appointed on-line gurus learn from the people who spent years perfecting their practice. Maybe there is a clue here as to what’s gone detrimentally wrong with the whole on-line circus.

4306391948_fd8371abfa_oThe book ‘the decisive moment’ by Henri Cartier-Bresson is often labelled as the Genesis of modern street photography yet so often people forget that this book took 20 years of photographing and critical editing before it became knitted together as a single cohesive piece of work. The internet itself has scarcely existed for that amount of time. How many ‘self taught’ internet generation photographers know what its like to look at an image for years before deciding whether it is good enough for the edit? ..why then are so many happy to adopt the terminology that places them in the same category as people like Cartier-Bresson? In most cases at least, there’s a world of difference.

My admiration for institutions like the World Press Photo organisation only increases the more what is happening is being shown for what it is. Deception. The whole idea of documenting life is to try convince people that this is being avoided, otherwise you have no audience who want to know what was documented in the first place. We need clarity on the idea that the photograph is the result for some and the starting point for others. So, my mind is clear, what we capture the photograph, what we manipulate an image.

Do we want photography to be seen as something unbelievable by default? I really hope not. That will devalue its purpose in an age where we all seem to be struggling to look for things with more significant purpose. When we look at something, hear something, smell something or touch something we want it to feel real otherwise we instinctively question its place in our reality. Maybe we have got to the point in civilization where we no longer want to distinguish between what is real and what can make us feel better. I personally don’t believe that is the case. We routinely don’t like to be reminded about the things that make us feel uncomfortable and feel we can do nothing about, yet if those things become too numerous our inner selves will react to that by what ever means become necessary.

wnpIf nothing else history teaches us of this cyclic effect, war and peace, searching and enlightenment, chaos and union. We all seek fantasy to nourish our dreams yet moments of awareness remind us that something inside us wants to know the truth regardless of what we have to go through to find it. We fundamentally don’t like being lied to. At some point we rise against it.. however long that takes.

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