Nobody likes to be manipulated. Not by a car salesman, not by politicians nor by a photograph. Of course when it comes to the latter, it depends both on individual preferences as well as the context the photograph is presented in. Nevertheless I think we all can agree upon the fact that there is a thin line between acceptable enhancement and deplorable manipulation. The question is; where do we draw that line? As for myself I am likely to accept almost anything that goes with art, but hardly anything done with a documentary photography.
We often think that manipulation is a feature of the digital era. But photography has been altered through all times, both in desirable ways as well as by shrewd methods. I remember how upset the photography community got when it was first known in the late 80’s how the renowned documentary photographer Eugene W. Smith had altered many of his photos. For instance how he had combined many negatives to obtain one of his most famous images of Albert Schweitzer and how he had burned and bleached the eyes of the mourners in the even more famous photograph The Wake so they would look at the man on lit de parade. Even so, most photographers and connoisseurs of photography accepted during the time of analogue photography, that the negative was usually the starting point of a creative process aimed at attaining an aesthetic interpretation of reality.
The big leap with digital technology, however, is how easy it has become to enhance, alter and manipulate photography. In addition we have gotten a whole array of new tools we can deploy if we wish to. Almost every day the boundaries for what can be done with a photograph are stretched. The result is that nobody trusts a photograph any more. The old saying «a photograph never lies» doesn’t hold much truth any more. In many ways the visual language of photography has reached a staged that can be compared to the written language. Writers have always been capable of writing fiction, personal comments, reports, eyewitnesses as well as lies and deceits – if they wanted to. In the end, how we read something comes down to what kind of text it is and who has written it. The same credibility is about to have – or already has – a similar decisive bearing on photography.
Where do we draw the line, then? The whole photography society is debating the question.
If we are talking about documentary photography, for me the line goes between digital enhancement and actually moving pixels. Darkening or lightening whatever is in a photograph is fine for me. So is altering the saturation – as long it is done true to the how the subject was when the photo was captured. The two photos above show what I find quite acceptable. One of them is how the scene was captured in RAW-format and the other the final processed photo. The difference is quite striking, but then it also has to be taken into account that the RAW-image itself is not by any account true to the original subject, that’s just the nature of the digital negative. On the other hand, the processed photo is very close to how I perceived the street scenery. It’s still an interpretation. And it’s still valid to ask if it’s acceptable.
What I am saying, is that basically enhancing is OK with me. In contrast then, adding, moving or removing pixels is not acceptable – again only in my opinion. At the same time I realize it’s not necessarily as easy as that. For instance if you by accident captured a Coca Cola can that ends up being very disturbing within the frame, most people would agree that it’s still not acceptable to digitally remove it – again talking about a documentary photography. But then, what difference is there really between removing the can before taking the shot and then afterwards digitally? Or is there any difference? Many photographers wouldn’t think twice about removing the can beforehand – but would oppose the idea of doing it digitally. Take another example: The shot underneath of a biking police officer was captured with a fast shutter speed. But I wanted to convey the feeling of movement, and blurred the image after the fact in Photoshop, in a way that makes it look like the biking policeman was captured with a long shutter speed. No doubt pixels have been moved and removed. But what is the difference between this photo and an actually photo taken with a long shutter speed? The end result would have been almost the same. I leave the question open for discussion.
The reality is that the transition to digital technologies is still controversial, even amongst professionals. What happened to Klavs Bo Christensen, disqualified in 2009 by the panel of judges of the prestigious Pictures of the Year (POY) contest for an alleged abuse in colour and tonal enhancement of the original RAW files of his pictures, is just a clear example. I believe that the jury’s request to produce the original RAW files in order to verify that no pixel had been manipulated in the final print was legitimate, but I do disagree with their final decision. Manipulation and digital enhancing – as I have tried to indicate – are actually two completely different concepts. The «over-photoshopping» techniques can be aesthetically judged, but they correspond to a photographer’s interpretation of reality and should not be mistaken with an attempt to temper with the visual content of an image.
Looking back at Christensen’s photo, it’s easy to see that nothing has been added nor deleted from the original image – the RAW file. That is the place where the frontier between manipulation and the digital enhancing process lies: on the one side there’s a mystification of reality, on the other a tonal and aesthetic interpretation of it.
A final example: Do you remember this post’s opening picture of a boxing gym (captured in Havana by the way)? Let’s say I captured an image like the one below, but my client needed to have a photo in square format. If I had known beforehand, I could of course have asked the young boxer to move over to the right. If I didn’t know beforehand, would it be acceptable to digitally move him over? In effect, what would the difference be? (Let me add that the digitally moving of the young boxer was only done for the sake of argument. I didn’t have a client asking for such a photo).
In the beginning, I said that I would accept almost anything when it comes to art. But what if the opening photo was requested by an art gallery? Then it suddenly would have become art, no? Is the digital moving/manipulation then tolerable?