What Does It Matter!

Why bother about trying to define what photography is? And does it matter whether a photo is digitally altered or not – in the end who gives a damn? In my post The Heart of Photography last week I initiated a discourse about what is and what is not photography. I didn’t try to come to any conclusions but my intent was to raise some open and relevant question. The comments and the debate after I had written the post were both engaging and diverse.

Many of those who commented were not troubled by the possibility that the digital era of photography has opened up for huge alterations and manipulations of the photographic expression, they saw it either as an extension of the artist’s vision and the artist’s interpretation of the moment of capture, or simply didn’t care – they want to take their photos and don’t feel the need to get involved in a theoretical discussion about photography. The latter take their photos for memory reasons and don’t see much more into photography.

For me it only shows that we all have different ways of both using and seeing photography. As one of the comments stated: «Photography has many purposes.» I think any discussion about photography will have to take that into account. But just to raise the bar: Even the happy snapper would not put up with a photo of President Obama hammering his shoe in the pulpit of the general assembly of the United Nations on the front page of New York Times – if it in fact wasn’t true (this happened for a former Soviet Union head of state, as a matter of fact).

One comment stating that my post seemed to want to bring a philosophical discussion to something that does not need one, made me think why it is indeed so important for me to define what photography is. It’s not necessarily an easy question to answer, but at the bottom of it all lays a need and a desire to understand my chosen form of expression. For me to be a good photographer I need to understand the more subtle and underlying truism that defines photography. I need to understand in order to use it as effective and creative as possible. Understanding what photography is also relates directly to my integrity and credibility as a photographer. I am a professional photographer and I depend on people understanding what I am trying to convey in my photos – and believing in my point of view. My field is mainly documentary photography (although I diversify in many directions – and more and more so in later years) and it would be a catastrophe if any of my photos were labelled forgery. Others in this field have done so and been disclosed. They went out of business.

A small digression but nevertheless an apropos: The American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith was a huge role model in my younger days – and I still think of him as one of the greatest photographers we have ever seen. In 1989 Jim Hughes – the former editor of Camera35 and Camera Arts – came out with a biography about Eugene Smith; W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance – The Life and Work of an American Photographer. In the book Hughes revealed that Smith had often manipulated his images in the darkroom. It wasn’t known until then, because Eugene Smith was very particular about never letting anyone see his negatives. For instance in the famous portrait of Albert Scweitzer taken in Lambaréné in Garbon, the tools – perceived as his tools – we see in front of him was added from a different negative. And another example: the picture of a wake which was part of Smith’s big Life story; The Spanish Village. In this photo Smith made people look at the old man on lit de parade – moving their eyes as he wanted them to be – by burning, dodging and bleaching their eyes. When the book came out it created an uproar among photographers and other people in the media business. Back then I didn’t get the indignation, for me Eugene Smith had just processed the photos in accordance with the way he had seen the events. Today, though, I have quite a different perspective on this matter.

To elaborate more about how understanding what photography is is important for me in order to perform fully as a photographer; this comes down to understanding the visual language of photography as well as being able to see the context a photograph is functioning in. For me there is a big difference in the way I photograph between doing a story about refugees in a displacement camp in Goma, Congo or if I am shooting on the streets of Vallegrande in Bolivia (which by the way the photo accompanying this post is taken from). Likewise there is a big difference whether I photograph for a magazine or if I photograph a personal project. It’s part of the inherent style of any given genre.

I have no problems accepting that most people who shoot for memories don’t care about genres, but I not only live of my photography but breathe for it. In many ways it may be compared to writing. Most people write letters or diaries or notes or blogs without being consciously aware of different genres of writing. But a professional writer, whether he or she writes books or for a newspaper, needs to know – and adapt – to different genres. There is obviously a different code for writing non-fiction than fiction, but it’s also a different matter whether you write a crime detective novel or a romantic novel. The style is different and the way of building a plot is different. The same in journalistic writing. There is a big difference whether you write a news article, an editorial, a comment or a feature article.

Photography is no different. For me, obviously, the biggest difference is whether you do art or documentary photography; in the former there are basically no rules to how you accomplish the end result, while for later it’s not indifferent how the image you present was acquired. But even art photography and documentary photography are nothing but broad categories; within each of them you will find an abundance of genres each demanding different photographic approaches. I am not saying that one should stick to rules that govern any genre as little as I mean that a photograph should stick to compositional rules. And I certainly don’t mean to say that alterations or manipulations of photographs are bad or unethical. On the contrary. But you need to know the rules before you break them, and you need to know why you break them if you do. Otherwise the result will be very confusing and lose its power.

Digital enhancement or alteration is fine – it’s more than that, it’s a fantastic tool we should use as much as possible – artistically. But it’s not indifferent how and when we do it – even in arts or in circumstances when it might not seem to matter much. I am sure most people don’t rustle up much conscious reflections around family snapshots, but I am sure no one would be very happy if the photographer had digitally eliminated one of the persons in a group photo of a family. It comes down to context.

For me Helen C’s comment in my post The Heart of Photography gives the best argument for why we need to be concerned about what photography is and in what context we use it. She said: « I was amazed at several “great” photographs I saw online. I showed some to my husband and said, “I want to learn how to take pictures like these.” I was crazy about them. Later when I learned how much “editing” was involved in producing those pictures, I felt being cheated, like reading a memoir book and liking it and later finding out 70% was fiction.»

Photography has to be seen in context. And photography is not one thing; it’s an array of different forms and expressions. This, though; I will return to next week. In the meantime; what different genres do you perceive photography can be divided into – and what are their different characteristics?