Where Do We Draw the Line?

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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.

Gateliv i gamlebyen

Gateliv i gamlebyen

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.

Munchow_0989-027

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.

© Klavs Bo Christensen

© Klavs Bo Christensen

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?

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About Otto von Münchow

Photographer based in Norway
This entry was posted in Photographic Reflections, Photography, Photojournalism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

120 Responses to Where Do We Draw the Line?

  1. Adrian B says:

    Very nice explanations, digital era is getting towards perfection. We start to depend more and more on editing. All the best.

  2. Sue says:

    Oh, goodness, Otto…thorny subject! And many answers…. A nicely thought provoking post. Personally, I believe it depends on what an image is used for….

  3. Jane Lurie says:

    Well written, Otto. I liked your comparison of digital to working in the darkroom. More manipulation may be available now with a digital file, however, both are open to the interpretation of the photographer. Loved your images, too.

  4. RuneE says:

    Very much to the point. I tend to agree with you – it depends on the use.

  5. schuttzie says:

    Great points for consideration, Otto!

  6. This is such an easy answer for ME! Please note I’m emphasizing “ME”. I think you can move, delete, enhance, add, destroy… you can do whatever you want to do when it comes to your art. But what you can’t do, is lie to me about it. So, if I saw the initial picture of the young man moved to the end of the ring and loved it – then so be it. But, when I asked you about it –and how this picture came to be, I’d expect full disclosure. And then, it’s on me to decide whether I want to purchase this or not. 9 times out of 10 I’d purchase it because I view it as art — and art to me is a production by the artist. So, I agree with you — documentary or telling me this is real life photo, would be a lie. Tell me this is a piece of art based on the truth of a boxing gym in Cuba, would be perfectly fine. PS. Great pics by the way. As always….

    • What a thoughtful answer. And I think I agree with you. 🙂 Of course the only problem will often be that you cannot get questions you may have about photos in newspapers or hanging on gallery walls answered, since the photographer is most likely not available for comments. So we do need an element of trust whenever applicable.

      • Hmm… I do see your point. But, just like journalism, I believe a certain anchor until I don’t. Until he is proven to be false in his reporting and such. Photos in newspapers or in galleries shouldn’t need to be answered at all. I think in the end, fraud shows itself to be what it is — But I think we need to be very careful of drawing lines — but what will always be true is that all artists, in all our creative & documentary forms, must be responsible artists. So, if I write fiction — I say it’s fiction. If I’m writing something else, then it’s something else. But I must always be as truthful as possible when I’m asked or when I speak of my creation to the best of my ability. But as you gaze upon my art and enjoy it for what you perceive it to be, I really owe you nothing more — I’ve given you something to think about. That’s my only job. Now, if you want to buy something, or inquire more, of if I’m talking about it… then, it’s my obligation to be forthcoming… journalists, photographic journalists, should not be that liberal with their work. To me, it’s apples and oranges. But I do see your point — and I’m so sorry that the photography world is struggling with this — to me, it just seems so simple. But goodness, I do see your point completely — what a GREAT post!

        • It is both simple and difficult, isn’t it. Trust always involves the possibility to be deceived. Personally I totally agree with you. We must be truthful about our work, whether it’s fiction or facts. And that also involves being aware of how and within what framework we present our expression, whether it’s photography, written texts or any other expression. For me, thus, if something is suppose to be facts and presented as such, I take it for granted that certain standards have been used to assure the gathering of these facts are as truthfully as possible (also knowing there is no such thing as an absolute truth).

  7. Mary says:

    Such a good question. When I see photos that are filtered and altered to the point they no longer resemble a photo, I question the fact that they can still be called a photo. But I think enhancing a photo to allow the viewer to see what we saw with our eyes when it was shot, is very valid and allowable.

  8. I think Carmen makes good points. To me, the image should stand on its own without explanations — but, I don’t want to be tricked with lies. At some point enhancements feel fair, but at another they feel like deceit (especially stuff like fashion ads). Things like the bike photo seem expressive and reasonable to me. I think there will never be clear lines of what’s okay for everyone, but part of the thing for creatives is to balance being purists vs. pushing the boundaries.

    • I agree, there will never be a clear line. For that same reason we need open discussions about were to draw this line, simply to become more conscious about the ethical dilemma. As you say, nobody likes to be tricked.

  9. I also liken digital apps and editing to the film darkroom. For me there is no difference. Each has its own tools to process a print by choice and manipulation. Regardless, the captured moment that is used for art probably is viewed differently from a non-professional’s snapping photos. Art by its definition and nature is intended to provoke this sort of conversation that you have proposed. Is there a line that can be crossed? Who sets the standards? As you said, questions double as some are answered and implied. In the end the minute the image appears in a forum for discussion, the photograph should be able to speak for itself. Does full disclosure change a person’s response? Does the knowing make a difference? Is it deceitful not to tell the steps taken to process an image? Each person has his or her point of view about this topic that will continue to stir comment.

    • You have many good and valid points in this thoughtful comment. Certainly each person has his or her point of view about this. Basically I agree with you that a photograph should be able to speak for itself. Still, I think the ethics behind a photograph needs to be seen in its context. Art is one thing, presenting something as a documentation is a different different ballgame.

  10. i’m slowly coming back to the living, though it’s been a tough few weeks. dengue the 2nd time around brings with it some challenges, and i’m glad to be past the worst parts. one of my problems has been an inability to read much – like hitting a brick wall. a few paragraphs was all i could handle at a time!

    alas, i am better and have a lot of back-reading.. will be back in town on wed pm and will be back here w/more feedback.

    thanks, otto, for all that you do and all that you share1

  11. YellowCable says:

    I think that depends on intention for the pictures to be used for. For an extreme example, if you work in forensic or pictures to be used in court of law then I think no pixel movements would not be appropriate. Any small items removed or added to the picture would be a distortion and could be significant. The weaker case would be journalism or documentary. I think in those case, arrangement of the pictures (before or after) for well representation might be acceptable but things get more grey. For artistic goal, for me anything go..

    • I agree, the intention very much has a decisive impact on where to draw the line. I agree fully with what you write about pictures to be use in the court room. On the other hand I distinguish between documentary and journalistic photography, setting the bar higher for the former, almost at the same level as for court photos.

  12. Terri Gold says:

    My work is interpretive – it was in the darkroom and now in the digital darkroom. I shot with infrared film and now use a converted digital infrared camera. My images encompass part of the light spectrum that is invisible to the eye when shooting and the mysteries revealed are part of my process.My subjects are often treated in a photojournalistic manner but this is not how I work and I clearly say that. This is an issue I think about constantly and really appreciate the discussion and comments. We must be truthful about our work, whether it’s fiction or facts.

    • I think your work clearly say it’s interpretive since it does not look like traditional documentary photography, albeit you treat your subject in a photo-journalistic manner. I think there is no doubt about what you photography stands for – and is both very truthful and rendered with integrity.

  13. ninagrandiose says:

    This subject has certainly got me thinking and re-thinking about my own ideas. As digital photography is a relatively new medium, the work that emerges from this medium may just require new definitions and most likely cannot be judged via the old standards that we apply to film. When we look back at other emerging forms of art, critics were always very harsh and often said that they didn’t qualify to be called “art.”

    • I do think digital imagery will require new definitions. In many ways it’s already happened with the postmodern understanding of photography. And you are very right, art has always challenged the established understanding.

  14. In the first image, I like how the young boxer’s arm is parallel to the steps and hand rail in the background!

    i admre anyone who can take an average photo and make it better/stronger.. but i also appreciate knowing how it was created.

    with pencil or paint, an artist has that freedom to move any and all parts of the image around for the best composition.

    • But also drawings are used to document situations, in which there is no such freedom to move any parts. For instance drawings made in court rooms where photographing is not allowed and used as a comment for instance in news papers. Of course there is still some freedom of interpretation – and in many ways transferring this thought-pattern to photography is part of what I want to discuss with this post. Once again it comes down to how any artistic expression is being used…

  15. Angeline M says:

    Unless the photo is going to be used as part of a photojournalism story, or for legal documentation, I think the photographer is free to create artistically with manipulation as he/she sees fit. What does it matter how we came to our final outcome, and why should we need to explain that? It is art for art’s sake, and not necessarily subterfuge or a trick. It is creativity, no? Good thought provoking post, Otto.

  16. Elaine- says:

    aaaaaaaah the eternal digital question….. the eternal answer: i don’t knoooow

  17. Su Leslie says:

    Very thought-provoking post. I’ve read it twice and am still thinking about how I feel on the subject. Thanks for this!

  18. renxkyoko says:

    I think it depends on the theme of the photographer. If it’s to show the colors of flowers,for example, enhancing the colors are fine with me. But the two photos in your post showing poverty make me a bit uncomfortable. The second photo makes the situation really bad.

  19. I have to be honest, this topic always bring dilemma to me and I don’t know what is the right answer. I always see photoshop as my digital darkroom that we can use to enhance our images for better color composition, brighter etc. So I am bit liberal on image editing – I think 😀
    Digital camera and nowadays lenses are great but they are not perfect. In my opinion, photo journalism/documentary is about the real situation and the right timing to capture the moment. For this type of photography, I would say it’s totally fine to enhance the colors or brighten up the images as long as the content of the image stay intact as the way it was captured. If that cost Klavs Bo Christensen an opportunity to be a photographer of POY, then does it mean a photo journalist should not be allowed to change the tone of colored image into black and white when get printed in newspaper? I thought such rule was bit too much…

    • I am glad you brought black and white into the discussion. I deliberately didn’t do it myself in order to keep the post from being too long. But, yes, I see it as quite a paradox that Klavs Bo Christensen’s photo represents an unacceptable enhancement in POY, while turning the same photography into a black and white would not have resulted in disqualification, even though that would have been a much more profound change. Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Indah.

  20. elisa ruland says:

    I look at this issue in simplistic way. As an amateur, my goals are to compose and take a shot without much editing (almost impossible!!) because I feel the personal rewards are greater. For someone in the commercial area of photography I can understand the need for more processing and special effects. Those who think of photography as art on a changing pallet will want to use their gift of creativity, which is a personal choice, but I agree with most…photojournalism, never. Thanks for making me think today, Otto!

    • I agree with, for amateurs is not a discussion that has much relevant for their own shooting. But even amateurs rely on professional photographs in one way or another, and wouldn’t want to be manipulated by them. And of then the questions arises again.

  21. Great subject, Otto, one that stimulates artistic, ethical, social, political questions. Personally, I’m ok with and enjoy manipulating an image as long as it is not trying to present reality, but rather to portray it.

  22. Very thought provoking Otto. Like many of the previous commentators I think it is fine to do whatever you like to a photo used for personal or commercial reasons but when it comes to legal or journalistic photos I think that integrity has to be exercised and pictures should not be manipulated in order to illustrate something that deceives the eye.

    • Yes, it seems like most of us agree that as a personal or artistic expression most any alteration is acceptable. But not so for journalistic photography. The question then for the latter still remains; where do we draw the line between manipulation and acceptable enhancement?

  23. seabluelee says:

    What a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Otto. I tend to agree with Carmen’s comments above. This question reminds me of the controversy a few years ago over a book that had been published as a “memoir” which turned out to have been mostly fiction. A friend of mine felt it didn’t matter; she thought the writing was good and had enjoyed the book. To me it mattered very much indeed. No matter how good the writing might have been, I felt the author had betrayed his readers’ trust. I don’t like being lied to. I have no trouble with photographs being enhanced to capture the photographer’s vision (I do that myself), but I do have a problem with supposedly documentary images being manipulated to try to manipulate ME!

    • I think what Carmen and you point to could be a pivotal borderline no matter genre. We simply don’t like to be lied to. So a photograph and a photographer should not lie – as simple as that. That goes to whether the photograph is art or journalism, although, of course, there is still a big difference in what is acceptable in each case.

  24. paula graham says:

    Hmmm..very good post but…unless we sing from the same sheet, one can easily be taken in by something that may well not be what it appears. Who are we to draw any line, when it can and does so easily get crossed? One day the cheater will stand before the god of truth who will thunder ………and ?

    • It may be that one day we will all be standing before a god, but I still think for any inter human relationship there needs to be some kind of trust. With photography as with other forms of human expression. This trust builds upon a common understanding of what is acceptable and what is not, from which follows the need to discuss what is acceptable and what is not. As you say: Sing from the same sheet. 🙂

  25. Very good moving of the boxer boy, can’t see the join!

  26. It is all about ethics and they are different. We as photographers make the first choice when we frame a subject. That is when we “crop” out a large part of reality and we are influenced by our own ethics, values or limited by equipment. Many “documentary” photographers shoot or convert to B&W which is not really the way the world looks to the majority of us unless you are a marine mammal or owl monkey. But that is accepted. Fuji Velvia looked different from Ektachrome which looked different from Kodachrome or negative color film. They were all accepted as “true”. Burning and dodging were all accepted. Removal of people who fell out of favor was accepted in the Soviet Union. Capa’s D-day pictures from Omaha beach were manipulated by an eager darkroom technician and became blurry. That was not his or his Leica’s fault. They are never- the-less considered documentary photography. So this is all about intent. On the other hand his “Falling soldier” is by some considered staged but it has also been accepted as an era defining picture. He knew and we will never, but we are all entitled to our opinion and with that come credibility. So there is no straight or simple or black or white answer. We all see what we want to see or not. The context is the difference between photo journalism and art and some photo journalism is considered art, once it hangs on a wall instead of being printed in a newspaper. Andreas Gurky’s Rhein II is (very expensive) art based on reality. But he removed people and objects digitally. It could have been photo journalism if he waited longer. I would with great pleasure hang a Nachtwey on my wall next to a Picasso (as if I ever will have either one). Are they both art if they hang on a wall instead of being printed in a newspaper or a tablet edition? I do not know and frankly do not care much. If a publication (or competition) say that they do not accept manipulated images then any photographer who tries to pass a manipulated image off as non-manipulated is just not very smart and will likely burn his/her bridges. That is short term thinking and just plain stupid and unethical.
    I think at the end of the day we look and like (some) pictures because they evoke an emotional response in us based on past memories, experiences and values. These are different in all of us. Full circle and it is ultimately in the eye of the beholder and we all draw our lines differently

    • It is very much in the eye of the beholder – and, our ethic standards, as well as about credibility. You bring up very good examples of why this is such a difficult issue – and why we will never be able to come to an absolute conclusion. And as you indicate, there are two sides to the equation; for one the intend of the photographer and secondly the ethical believe-system of the viewer. Thank you for a very thoughtful and elaborate comment, Henry. Great points.

  27. Such an interesting discussion you’ve started and with many people who have thought about this subject. As a ‘consumer’ of photographs I still always count on them to tell the truth when I read a paper or news website even though I know they can be manipulated. I guess I’m grateful that editors are such sticklers around the rules of manipulation. Thank you for the example photos – they taught me a lot.

    • Usually we trust editors, writers and photographers in the news media, but unfortunately there have been too many examples of this trust being misused. Thank you for taking part in the discussion.

  28. Very interesting exploration of this subject. It’s a fine line; I personally believe it’s okay to crop or to add saturation, straighten a picture, etc. But to move things in post-processing that were originally in the picture, I don’t like. You’re right, of course you could remove or move the object before taking the photo, but in that case, you’re still capturing reality (as you rearranged it beforehand). Once the picture’s taken, that’s the reality. I don’t think that should be altered, unless like you say it’s for art only. But definitely not for documentary purposes.

  29. Lynda says:

    Really interesting post Otto. My personal preference is to keep photos as close to the original scene as possible – aesthetically I prefer more natural looking colors – but I also respect people’s talent when it comes to photoshop and creating something entirely new. A lot depends on why the picture is taken and what it will be used for, as you discussed in your post. Very thought-provoking!

    • I used to prefer to keep photos as close to the original captured scene as possible. But when each camera or – as in the old days – each film sees the world different, what is a truthful rendition then? But I do generally prefer a more natural look as well. Thank you for your comment, Lynda.

  30. rangewriter says:

    As always, Otto, you’ve raised compelling and important questions. The difficulty is in drawing up the rules of engagement in an arena that is thought to be controlled by “reality.” But reality itself, is a troubling concept to fully define. Perspective always tampers with reality.

  31. Ptck says:

    This is a good subject you express here !!
    Digital opens more opportunities, creating that silver
    in art, there is someone, everyone is free to interpret according to his point of view – we must respect the view and the sensitivity of the author

  32. Good morning Otto, I am neither a photographer nor young anymore and I like best if pictures are not enhanced to much. For example, the photo of the lady among the rubble, shows already quite clearly in what miserable situation she is and for me to darken it to much doesn’t provoke in me a stronger feeling. Thank you for your interesting explanations and best regards Martina

  33. As ever, very well pondered considerations. When people see an obviously altered picture, they now scream out “Photoshop!”. But the same thing has been going on as long as people have been taking photographs. The main difference is that, before the arrival of Photoshop, that scream would have been “airbrush!”

  34. Louis says:

    An interesting dilemma Otto. Basically I agree with the interpretation you suggest in the opening paragraph. I would only add that much depends on the photographer’s intention and, indeed, the photographer’s integrity. Much depends upon the context of the image – its purpose. Some years ago the British Film Institute provided an education pack of images and, selecting from the same batch of photographs, students were invited to present two opposing arguments. Note, the images were the same, only the context changed. The ‘truth’ of a photograph can be manipulated in more ways than one!

  35. Jocelyne says:

    Wow, that’s quite a subject Otto. For documentaries and news I think it shouldn’t be manipulated afterward, like removing things that couldn’t possibly be removed before taking the photo, but I don’t mind if an effect is created in-camera or in post-process, like your example of the policeman, what’s the difference, it’s the same when you look at the photo, so why is it considered bad if it was created in post-process. For everything else to me it’s art ! With my photos I don’t necessarily try to render exactly what I saw when I took the picture, it’s more a creative process where I try to infuse my photos with a certain mood and I enhance and remove and change things to match the vision I have of my imaginary world. To me photography is primarily art and within this frame of reference everything is acceptable. Documentary photography is art too in it’s own way and I think there should be some boundaries as to what is acceptable or not.
    A good post and I really liked your photos too.

    • Thank you for you very thoughtful comment. And I think we basically agree. Everything in art is OK, while for documentary photography alterations after the fact isn’t acceptable. The question then of course is if it’s OK to alter the subject before capturing it?…

  36. Otto, I think it’s also important to understand that a photograph can never be truly real, no matter whether or not it was touched up. At best it is a perception of reality, at worst a corruption. No matter how objectively I choose to capture reality, the moment I compose an image in the camera I impose my perception of reality which is but a product of an ideology and the many socio- political factors that have a bearing on how I see(or rather choose to see) things. So I think before we ‘believe’ what we see in an image, it’s important to know where it is coming from, just as it is important to know a bit about the author before reading a book.

    • Your last point is very important, the whole clue to understanding a photograph and for the discussion about ethics. As for real or not real, this goes right into a postmodern understanding of photography, where many believe that photography doesn’t have any connection to reality. I still believe a photo renders reality, but, as you write, through the eyes of the photographer and how he or she chooses to compose and capture it. Thank you for your comment, Uday.

      • “Through the eyes of the photographer and how she or he chooses to compose and capture it.” — that’s true, Otto. One can make a small group of people look like a mob and vice versa just by composing the image differently.

  37. shoreacres says:

    I think every relevant point already has been raised in this wonderful discussion. I think what you say about the inevitable altering of reality before it is captured is critical. Discussions about how we frame photos are commonplace these days: which details are included, and which are excluded can make two photographs of one scene seem entirely unrelated. One step to the right or the left, and everything changes.

    Even equipment makes a difference. A macro lens can render a tiny insect large enough to fill a screen or page. Telephoto lenses make objects in the distance seem close enough to touch. We see such photos and then, when we are introduced to the subjects in reality, sometimes feel disappointed, as though the photograph was more “real” than the subject at hand.

    As for retouching, I’ve no particular problem with it, particularly if it serves the photo. An example comes to mind. A friend captured the most beautifully-lit landscape ever, but a white sign was plunked right in the middle. He acknowledged taking it out, and I was glad he did. Had he left it in, it would have been the focal point of the photo, demanding attention that rightly belonged to the hillsides and the light. Had he been documenting examples of unhappy human incursions into nature, it might have been wholly appropriate to leave it in. I suppose in the end, knowing our purpose, and communicating it clearly, makes these issues easier to sort out.

    • Yes, understanding or knowing the purpose – which really means seeing the photo in its context – is critical when evaluating and reading a photograph. What you point to in the beginning of your comment, is a statement to the fact that any captured photograph is influence by the one behind the camera, that is; there is no such thing as a objective and “true” photograph. Thank you for your elaborate comment, Linda.

  38. Truels says:

    I think it’s exciting when photographers change and “play” with their photos – and trying new frontiers to create exciting photo – art.
    But if you are signaling that you make photo – documentary, the only pruning and adjustments to the color and similar ok – do you change much more should this be clearly commented with the image.
    It is very important to discuss how these boundaries are defined, and your article is helping to focus on this discussion!

  39. elmediat says:

    Coming at this from the perspective of Media Literacy, I see the issue a bit differently. A fundamental principle of Mass Media is that all Mass media constructs a reality. AS soon as you frame the subject you have created a reality. Choosing colour or B&W creates a reality. Camera distance & angle convey emotional context, modifying the message.

    What the new digital photographic processes have done, is made obvious that images are not depicting reality, but rather the photographer’s interpretation of reality. No different than what the painter does with s/he tools & choice of media.

    Documentary photography is at form of personal essay. The essayist is presenting a personal opinion with the intent of shaping the audience’s beliefs and values. To document in a purely objective way would require presenting all the raw images taken and let the viewer randomly select and organize them as they saw fit. Of course their choices and interpretation would be a constructed reality based on their knowledge & understanding combined with their own values, beliefs & ideologies.

    As to the issue you raise about evaluation of photographs by other photographers, I agree with your point. It really must come from a consensus of criteria & priorities and and agreement on the terminology for evaluation. The line for evaluation is again a subjective one that the group must share and articulate effectively.

    Great post. Lots to think about. 🙂

    • Thank you for a very thought provoking comment. What you say about images not depicting reality but are interpretations of reality, goes to the core of what is called postmodern photography – something I will discuss in my next post. In the end I totally agree with you; objective photography doesn’t exists, just by framing we make a personal comment about reality. A great comment!

  40. Drawing that line, tricky territory. A well crafted post with wonderful comments.

  41. Chillbrook says:

    We have to trust the documentary photographer I think Otto but should we? We like to think we can trust our newspapers to give unbiased reporting but in the recent general election here, Rupert Murdoch’s News International titles simply stopped trying to hide their obvious bias. Perhaps this is a feature of the world we live in now. Old fashioned standards get diluted by the minute and perhaps the same goes for documentary photography. Can it really be trusted? There have been numerous examples like the ones you site where photographers have manipulated photographs to tell the story they want to tell or rather perhaps, the story as they interpret it, not necessarily the story that is there. This has to be of great concern.

    • Murdoch’s various papers around the world have shown not to be very trustworthy to say the least. Or just think about his Fox News. So in the end the trust has to be built over years. We trust photographers or newspapers that again and again reports in a truthful way, albeit subjective and biased. But you are right, generally it has to be of great concern.

  42. Chillbrook says:

    I should add that in my opinion, removing litter manually from a scene before taking a photograph is no different to removing it after in Photoshop. Whether either is OK has to depend on the reason the photograph is being taken. I have removed litter from the occasional photograph if it interferred with my interpretation of the scene I was trying to capture. By the same token, I might deliberately choose to keep the litter in if my intention were to make a point about littering of the countryside. However, I certainly wouldn’t go and empty a bin across the foreground of my picture to emphasise or make my message stronger. A landscape photographer here was famously disqualified from a competition for swapping out the sky in his ‘winning’ image. The sky added, served to emphasise the mood the photographer was trying to create, with his photograph. No doubt creating a scene closer to what he felt when he took the original photograph. I think this is legitimate as long as we are honest about what we are doing. The competition in question now has a category that allows for this kind of digital manipulation. The rules of the original competition did not therefore it was right he was disqualified although I don’t think it what he did was wrong in principle. It’s not something I have done but I’ve been tempted. However for me, part of what it is to be a landscape photographer is to know the picture you want to take and then wait for the conditions to come together to give you that picture. I return to locations many times and always the conditions are different. Sometimes I get the picture, often I do not. I use filters to enhance the skies I have quite often however. This serves to communicate the drama as I see it just a little more effectively. I don’t feel it’s dishonest to do that. To me it’s same as actors on a stage using larger gestures and bigger voices to tell their story more effectively. I think these debates will run and run. It’s always interesting to have them and to read people’s opinions on the subject. As ever Otto, a very thought provoking and excellent article.

    • No doubt this is a discussion that will run and run again. I believe no final conclusion will ever be reach, and for that reason it’s even more important to keep the discussion alive. Only by sharpening us against each other, may we achieve a form of understanding of this demarcation. Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts on the subject, Adrian.

  43. Essay of Two says:

    Thanks for the read! Quite an insight to the world of photography.

  44. I really don’t know where I stand on this issue. I’m going to have to give it a lot more thought. First, looking at the top image, it never even occurred to me that you might have moved the subject over… until I got to the last image. Now, it feels like a fiction. But a lot of great art is a fiction. I would worry about that usage spilling over into evidence and documentation. Could any “photographic truth” be fabricated for any purpose then? That’s a little scary. Thinking… I am provoked by though. LOL

    • Your question of course goes to the core of this discussion, can a photograph be fabricated? And yes, it can. That’s the simple answer. But of course it has more nuances. Just like words can be fabricated to tell whatever, there is still a ethical and practical framework around the use of words.

  45. “The old saying «a photograph never lies» doesn’t hold much truth any more.”
    That’s true and it never did hold any truth either.

  46. What a can of worms! This is a really well written, thought provoking post – with no ‘right’ answers 🙂

  47. Well argumented. This is also my position. You have forgotten treating the color/b&w issue. What right do we have to turn a color pic into b&w? Well, I think we do have plenty.

    • I do think we have any right to turn colours of the world into black and white photographs, but it does go along with the argument here. Thank you for the comment, Renato.

  48. themofman says:

    A fine post. This goes to the heart of a lot of photography, and perhaps especially editorial work (finger-pointing toward fashion photography). Here are a couple of hypotheticals:

    If the intent — which is an important consideration here, behind a shot is to 1) convey the reality of a subject or circumstance while 2) still allowing a restricted amount of creative input to enhance the aesthetics of an image, then is it excessive to remove your hypothetical Coke can from the image?

    If editing out the can for the sake of aesthetics is judged (by whom as yet to be determined) to not adversely interfere with the intent of conveying reality, then wouldn’t it be acceptable to edit out the can?

    Israel may still be the only nation in the world that has laws regarding photo editing, at least where editorial work is concerned. I don’t know if it has yet been used in an actual case there but I wonder if my hypothetical questions has or ever would be considered.

    • You hypothetical questions go right at the core of the dilemma. I don’t really know the answer, but in the documentary world there is no possibilities to remove the can after the fact.

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