Grayson and Mike at Outside Magazine asked me to write an essay for their photography issue and we settled on the topic of photo manipulation. It’s certainly a hot button issue these days not only because of how easy it’s gotten to make realistic fakes but also because it’s gotten easier to publicly debate it and uncover forgeries that are passed off as real. I personally think we’ve reached the point where media organizations need to air out and in most cases simply create guidelines for what they believe is acceptable. Additionally they need to start informing their readers on the where’s, why’s and how’s of these policies. As many astute observers of media have pointed out, transparency in journalism will be a critical part of how media works in the future and the credibility of brands will hang on our belief that their intention is delivering some version of the truth.
You can read the full essay I wrote (here) and a response from Ed Freeman (here) but I wanted to discuss the conclusion I arrived at after interviewing dozens of people for the story. Photos that are faked are intrinsically tied to photos that are real. They draw much of their power from the public’s belief that photos never lie. Of course all of us know “the camera always lies” and the second you pick a lens or a place to stand you’re influencing the reality of the picture in some way. But, we can’t escape that the public still wants to believe in a photograph’s ability to tell the truth. So, people who take images that appear to be truthful but are really altered beyond reality are at some level destroying this bond.
What amounts to a forgery in photography is incredibly subjective and grey. And, like I said above I think it’s up to the media organizations to define and their audience to accept or reject. And really anything is possible now, so the “old darkroom techniques” aren’t really good anymore for guidelines. I believe very strongly that the intentions of whatever is done to the image, whether it is to represent what actually happened in front of the camera or to make what happened seem better than it actually was, help define what’s acceptable. One way organizations are starting to do that is to require photographers to submit RAW files to compare the finished images with (or what about just shooting film).
It seems helpful when thinking about this to look at writing because the same techniques that writers use to take research, raw dialogue and observation and then turn that into a story is no different than what photographers need to do when approaching a subject. So, why don’t we have fiction and non-fiction photography (I think photo-illustrations are different)? And why do we mix non-fiction stories with fiction photography. This seems like part of the solution and something other people have been indicating is a problem with the NY Times Magazine, because they appear to want it both ways. But, let’s be honest with ourselves writers stretch the boundary of non-fiction to it’s breaking point all the time. So, again it’s up to the publication to become more transparent about their guidelines and to not start blaming contributors when the readers show up with torches.
I think the place where I found this practice of photo fakery most troubling was in wildlife photography. Photographers in that genre will simply tack a “fine art” sign to their back and claim exemption from any need to replicate reality. The problem with this is that they more than anyone are benefiting from the public’s misguided belief that all pictures are real. My first interview for the piece was with Art Wolfe who way back in 1994 ignited a firestorm when he published a wildlife book entitled Migrations where a third of the images were fakes. Art was careful to point out that he didn’t misrepresent natural history and he called the pictures photo-illustrations. This was similar to a response I kept hearing from Steve Bloom when I tried to pin him down about a charge many people made to me that his wildlife images are mostly composites and extreme digital enhancements. Steve gave me incredibly evasive email answers in the vein of what Edgar Martins had to say about his dust up with the NY Times Magazine. Why can’t we just be honest and say “I did it because I wanted to make my photos look better than anyone elses”
And look, I’m not claiming I’m any sort of knight-riding-a-white-stallion either I’m just saying it’s time to start policing ourselves (starting with magazines) or else we’ll end up like the fashion industry and congress will soon be considering anti-photoshopping laws (I used to wish each month there was such a law when the owner’s of both magazines I worked at insisted we heinously paint the sky blue on the cover).
When people see an amazing photograph for the first time they usually ask, “is it real?” The answer should be yes.