Photographic truth and Photoshop

April 17, 2009 · by David Campbell · photography

Photography’s anxiety about truth, manipulation and reality has been on show recently. In different ways and from different contexts, people have been asking: “how much Photoshop is too much”?

From the realm of fashion, French Elle is being celebrated for running a cover story in which the models photographs have not been ‘Photoshopped’ (thereby confirming, as I’ve noted previously, that digital manipulation is the norm in this visual domain).

From the world of photojournalism, blogs like 1854, PDNPulse and the Online Photographer (with a follow-up here) have been buzzing with the story of the Danish photographer Klavs Bo Christensen who was excluded from that country’s Picture of the Year competition for excessive colour manipulation of his Haiti story.  Along with two others, Christensen was asked to submit his RAW files to the competition judges who felt that the colour in his photographs had been excessively saturated, and removed his images from the competition as a result. Christensen was subsequently happy to have his files put on the web for comparison and discussion, thereby performing an important service to the photographic community.

My interest in the case is less in the rights and wrongs of Christensen’s images and more in how we talk about the rights and wrongs of these images. For those who feel the judges were right and Christenson was wrong, the case is relatively simply. Both the judges and the bloggers are in broad agreement. Photography is understood in terms of either art or documentary/photojournalism/reportage, with the latter supposed to be free of manipulation that gets in the way of seeing the world as it really is. You can make changes to digital images that replicate what would have once been with film and paper in the darkroom, but no more. It all seems straightforward with nice clear lines that should not be crossed.

If only. Framing the debate in these terms relies on a conventional understanding of the history of photography that cannot be sustained. The line between ‘art’ and ‘documentary’ has been blurred ever since John Grierson, who coined the term documentary in the 1920s, argued that its purpose was to generate a particular “pattern of thought and feeling” in the viewer. This sense, replicated in all the statements by well-known photojournalists that their function is to bear witness and record the otherwise ignored injustices of modern life, means there is always a particular perspective at the heart of documentary and reportage no matter how often people want to defend it in terms of simple realism.

There are also some more mundane reasons why the lines of judgment are not so clear-cut. As much as those who take issue with Christensen think that the RAW files are “pretty eloquent all by themselves,” are these files really like film negatives? Can anyone actually see a RAW digital file without any post-processing? (Could we actually see a negative without post-processing?).

All this suggests we are talking about the degree of alteration and post-processing that is deemed acceptable rather than either the absence or presence of manipulation. This is confirmed by reading some of the comments in favour of the judges. Mike Johnston summarized the view rather well:

And of course there’s nothing wrong with Photoshop (or any other image editor), or with darkroom manipulation. But in photojournalism those tools are expected to be used to increase the accuracy and veracity of the photograph to the scene—not decrease it. That seems to be Mr. Christensen’s failure here, not the tools he used. He’s simply made himself a suspect witness by overdoing his manipulations to the point of obvious unreality, subverting realism for cheap effects instead of reporting it with an appropriate modicum of dispassion.

This argument repeats the familiar terms justifying conventional photojournalism – veracity, witness, realism, dispassion. However, given these terms, allowing for some legitimate manipulation, the idea that one can increase accuracy and veracity – as opposed to simply record it without interference – undercuts the logic of the starting point.

Similarly, the Danish competition judges accept editing in Photoshop, thought some of Christensen’s images were satisfactory, but deemed most of them “too extreme.” So the issue is not whether you can manipulate or not, but how far one can go. The rules of the competition seek to make these limits clear:

Photos submitted to Picture of The Year must be a truthful representation of whatever happened in front of the camera during exposure. You may post-process the images electronically in accordance with good practice. That is cropping, burning, dodging, converting to black and white as well as normal exposure and color correction, which preserves the image’s original expression. The Judges and exhibition committee reserve the right to see the original raw image files, raw tape, negatives and/or slides. In cases of doubt, the photographer can be pulled out of competition.

So, although you have to have “a truthful representation of whatever happened in front of the camera during exposure,” even if you exposed the multi-coloured world in colour you can convert it to black and white. While Christensen was criticized for over-saturating his colours, he would have been in the clear had he simply, and completely, de-saturated them. The excessive addition of colour is a problem, but the total subtraction of colour is permitted. Is that clear?

Again, my interest is not in the rights and wrongs of the case, but, rather, the terms of the debate about what is right and wrong. We most definitely need photographs (including black and white pictures) we can use as documents, but we cannot justify documentary status through conventional understandings based on a mythical understanding of photography’s history and a supposedly secure analogue past. Photojournalism, as I’ve written elsewhere, has to learn to live with tensions and contradictions as it searches for a better foundation in our digital world.

17 Responses to “Photographic truth and Photoshop”

  1. I think that we are looking at the top of an iceberg. Two more photographers were called upon for control of their raw-files in the danish contest.
    And one winning image looks very suspicious, in my opinion.

  2. Yes, as I noted in the post, Christensen was one of three photographers who had to submit their RAW files to the judges of the Danish contest.

    This may or may not be the tip of the iceberg — but what interests me most is how some images are judged as ‘suspicious’ and against what standard? Christensen, who made his RAW files public for all too see, openly acknowledges that he gave his pictures “full throttle” in Photoshop. We may judge that to be inappropriate for reportage. But — and its a big but — if we do think his actions wrong, how we can justify the full throttle of desaturation (turning a colour file into black and white), as permitted by the Danish competition rules?

    What this demonstrates is that the grounds for judging the legitimacy of documentary photographs come, not from external or objective standards, but from accepted practice within the history of photojournalism. And in this history — as Martin Parr has recently noted (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/apr/15/madonna-photo-malawi-adoption) — black and white has been the ‘gold’ standard.

    There may be no problem with that accepted practice, but it can’t be justified — as too often is the case in this debate — in terms of realism, veracity, accuracy, objectivity and truth.

  3. I’m not quite sure if the comparison between over saturation and desaturation is the issue – plenty of colour photography is over saturated. The issue for me is whether or not the manipulation is – and I admit this is a highly subjective term – believable. Black and White actually has as one of it’s strengths the ability to render form clearly without the distraction of colour. Our eyes and brain respond to colour quite strongly, and even can vary from person to person. Without going into a long discussion of the hows and whys this can often lead people into thinking that b&w images seem somehow more truthful and reliable. B&W is a manipulation, in that it ignores colour information, but the point is that it does not alter anything in terms of shape and form – all things we in our collective perception of reality can agree on. With colour, there is much more room for distortion and debate (are you sure the ground was that particular hue of red-brown? Was the sky quite so deep blue, was the shack that bright a turquise?)

    As for these particular images, the photoshopping – in my opinion, is just plain bad. He should not have been disqualified as there are not really any factual alterations – such as the kind often employed in advertising and in fashion – just some over saturation and contrast to the point where we doubt the scene was as it appears in the photograph. Contrast and Saturation could have been added with more restraint and the photographs would still have had the desired aesthetic. Think of it like a legal case. Can you say, beyond reasonable doubt, that the scene is an accurate representation of what occurred. If looking at these photographs make you think ‘photoshop’ and then the comparison with an unretouched file confirms it, then you have placed a barrier between the viewer and the content.

    One reason why this is such a touchy subject in documentary and photojournalism is precisely because of what has happened with fashion and advertising. Seeing is still believing, and people like to choose when they can be lied to. People are happy to believe that that model has flawless skin and a healthy glow but don’t want to believe that the broken concrete slabs (as in one of Christensen’s images) are radiating a steely blue light. If photojournalism and documentary are to retain the respect of people who look at photographs, then manipulations should show some restraint. Sure, the light might well have given that concrete a tint of blue, but how many (except under hallcinatory conditions) have witnessed concrete glowing that particular hue? Does that not therefore cast the veracity of the image in doubt? And for a profession that holds facts in such high regard, with a public that does not like being fooled in this particular arena, is that not a problematic situation?

  4. Discussions about what you can do and what you can’t do in photography are always kind a weird to me. Photojournalist are supposed to shoot the reality. What they see…. but then they use flash and it’s fine, then if I shoot Kodacrhome 25 and print it on ciba it’s fine, I shoot B&W and print it balancing everything and maybe even changing the way the light was, and it’s fine again… I do crossprocessing and… it’s fine. But then I use photoshop to increase contrast and… it isn’t fine…. Christensen did overdo his files (and by my taste : I do not like them like that), but he didn’t change reality. not even the colours as judges blame him. I took the RAW pic of the rubbles from the website of POY and put it in photoshop did a easy contrast curve and the walls are really blue! and guess what? the chair IS yellow! so please someone tell the judges that he changed the saturation yes but not the reality!

  5. Tom and Giovanni’s comments offer important observations on this issue. Both, it seems to me, rightly acknowledge the inherent constructed-ness of photography (including documentary and reportage), yet note equally the larger desire on the part of both practitioners and viewers to have pictures that can be regarded as trustworthy renditions of an event or issue. And that gets to the crux of the matter — what we desire, and what we need.

    Believability is key to that, though in the case of black and white, it might stem from the way monochrome has been culturally produced as authentic by the history of documentary photography rather than any inherent perceptual qualities to this style.

    The passion evident in debates about Photoshop and truth show that no matter how hard people try to find it, there is no self-evident, objective standard to make clear and unproblematic judgments about what is legitimate and what isn’t. If there were, why would everybody be arguing so? Constantly searching for the mythical foundations of truth to end these debates only papers over a proper understanding of photography as a technology that creates worlds as much as it reveals them.

    None of this is to suggest that veracity gets chucked out the window, and that photographers can just do what they like and make things up. Far from it. But this debate reinforces my view that we have to move away from judging photographs on what they are, to thinking about what they do. Photojournalism in particular has to come to terms with its inherent constructed-ness and move on to how it uses this to tell stories, highlight issues, and produce evidence.

  6. I worked for nine years in newspaper photography at the Wilmington, NC, Star-News Newspapers, and do have a thought or two about this topic.
    I agree, basically, with your question, David; aside from a kind of vague “community standard”, depending on which “community” is asked, what useful, measurable guidelines
    can be put into place? Who gets to decide?
    Or maybe (and this is my own question)… should the Lack of a deeply satisfying, broadly agreed-upon, basis keep us awake to the fact that so-called journalistic or documentary photography can only be telling a tiny slice of any sort of event or “reality”? Why did we ever come to believe a news photo, in the first place? As amateurs and professionals, alike, know, out of a conceivable 360 degree (and that’s just at eye-level!) set of Points Of View, and out of an unstoppable flow of the perception of Time, the photographer/camera selects only the barest evidence of “what happened”, via the light (and sound?) recordable by the technology available. Can anyone actually make a solid case for that slice being “True” of the whole “event”?
    And, if not, then what are we to make of photojournalism.. .even by photojournalists with the highest standards of professionalism and integrity?
    I would finally argue that the best use of photojournalism might not be to Answer questions, but to Pose the best questions in Such a compelling way that the intended audience goes searching for the answers, themselves, or at the very least, doesn’t assume it knows the whole truth.

  7. Wayne’s comment seems wise to me — work within a recognition of the inherent constructed-ness of photography, and therefore re-position photojournalism as a practice aware of its limits, yet still capable of making important contributions to the posing of questions, the raising of issues, and the provision of material that could function as evidence in a larger story. But none of it justified by mythical claims about the nature of the practice; instead we deal with the way photographic practice works.

  8. The New York Times has an article today — Smile and Say ‘No Photoshop’ — on the issue of fashion magazines and Photoshop retouching, with the case of Elle as the starting point.

  1. CCT Blog Wrap up: New media, new reality, new ethical quandaries …

    Here at home on Gnovis:

    Post thesis, Brad fills his extra time contemplating trends on Photoshop Disaster discussion board. Leading to come interesting conclusions including this comment:  Read More » Bookmark/Search this post wi…

  2. […] meaning, manipulation and Photoshop have been prominent recently (see my previous posts here and here, with some updates amongst the comments for […]

  3. […] In the wake of renewed concerns about photographic manipulation (which I have discussed here) Hsu is worried about how norms that contest fabrication will be governed. It is an interesting […]

  4. […] Haiti photos from the Danish picture of the year competition – a controversy I discussed here in April. (Note that some of the links in that post no longer find details of the Christensen […]

  5. […] David Campbell considers the discourse that led to Danish photojournalist Klavs Bo Christensen’s photographs removal from the Photo of the Year competition for color manipulation. […]

  6. […] Lens Blog/New York Times: “The World’s Best Photos for 2012″ World Press Photo: “2013 World Press Photo” (Website des Wettbewerbs inkl. Galerien) DevelopPhoto: “Explaining World Press Photo 2013″ (DevelopTube, Videochannel bei Vimeo, mehrere Teile) lab-Blog/Steffen Leidel: “Nachrichtenagentur AP ohne Filter” AP/Associated Press: “AP News Values & Principles” Behind the Photo: “Klavs Bo Christensen’s ‘too much Photoshop’ disqualification” (Bilder im Vergleich, englischer Text) The British Journal of Photography: “Too much Photoshop?” David Campbell: “Photographic truth and Photoshop” […]

  7. […] Lens Blog/New York Times: “The World’s Best Photos for 2012″ World Press Photo: “2013 World Press Photo” (Website des Wettbewerbs inkl. Galerien) DevelopPhoto: “Explaining World Press Photo 2013″ (DevelopTube, Videochannel bei Vimeo, mehrere Teile) lab-Blog/Steffen Leidel: “Nachrichtenagentur AP ohne Filter” AP/Associated Press: “AP News Values & Principles” Behind the Photo: “Klavs Bo Christensen’s ‘too much Photoshop’ disqualification” (Bilder im Vergleich, englischer Text) The British Journal of Photography: “Too much Photoshop?” David Campbell: “Photographic truth and Photoshop” […]

  8. […] Text) The British Journal of Photography: “Too much Photoshop?” David Campbell: “Photographic truth and Photoshop” NPPA/National Press Photographers’ Association: “Photojournalism and Post-Processing: […]

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