Photographic truth and Photoshop

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.