Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

Photography And Truth, Part II

If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to read Part I of this discussion, I would urge you to do so here.

I suspect that the main reason behind the expectation of a photograph portraying ‘reality’ (which, by the way, ignores the fact that what one person perceives as reality might well be a bit different from the way another perceives it) is the historical use of photographs in journalism. This raises two issues. The first is whether one should expect the same ‘rules’ that apply to journalism to also apply to fine art photography, and the second is just how much ‘truth’ is depicted in an ‘unmanipulated’ journalistic photograph.

There exists a certain ‘code of ethics’ regarding the use of photographs for journalistic purposes. One can certainly understand that images used in this way should not be ‘altered’. But, in reality, an ‘unaltered’ image doesn't necessarily depict total truth either. As previously mentioned, the choice of focal length used will effect the apparent facts in the image. Exactly how far away is the subject, as opposed to how far away does the photographer want the subject to appear to be? Does the subject know they are being photographed?

But, I believe this issue is a minor one compared to the issue of in-camera cropping. What is just outside the frame and left out can, at times, tell as much about the situation as what is included. I will never forget a piece that I read which showed a photograph of a young person seemingly caught in the act of violent revolt. This image had been used as news in many prominent newspapers and magazines. One photographer, however, had the wherewithal to take a photograph of the overall event. What was actually occurring was that there was a group of perhaps 30 or so photographers all crouching down (just outside the frame) and taking the same image. The subject was now seemingly ‘enjoying’ his portrayal of revolution. Meanwhile, each of the photographic journalists had independently and conveniently cropped out all the others. There was no apparent enemy and the photographers certainly did not seem concerned about exposing themselves to danger.

Viewed from this standpoint, the story seemed to change. It now appeared that the subject was posing for the shot and the image seemed more like propoganda than news. Was it real? Can the presence of one camera change reality? What about 25 or 30 cameras all trained on the same subject? What urging, either actual or subliminal, might have been taking place to get the subject to perform?

Just to be clear, I am not a journalist and have never been one, so I apologize and am certainly willing to accept correction if any of the details above are erroneous. Nor, I should add, am I a conspiracy theorist. However, it does appear to me that, at least to some small extent, every image conveys only the reality that the person behind the lens wants it to. It would appear, then, that there are some similarities between journalistic and fine art photography.

However, bringing the discussion back to the topic of fine art photography, I think the biggest issue involving ‘truth’ as it applies to photography in the digital era comes in the form of ‘innocent’, as opposed to overt, manipulation. What is this rather sinister (said sarcastically) impediment to the portrayal of truth. Why, none other than the RAW format itself!

While the casual point ‘n shooter typically sets his or her in-camera parameters and shoots in .jpg format, all the while not necessarily thinking about the fact that the camera is doing its own post-processing, the serious photographer most often shoots in RAW format. The interesting thing is that RAW not only allows, but DEMANDS, post processing interpretation of the final image because the initial RAW data, which has not had any post-processing applied to it, is quite bland and just as ‘untruthful’ as an image that has been heavily manipulated. So the final result of an image taken in RAW format must then become, at best, only a representation of reality based on one person’s memory.

In the end, the debate regarding digital manipulation is likely one that will never end. 'Truthfulness' in imaging, as in many other things in life, is ultimately only as honest and factual as the person behind the lens.

Nonetheless, I do suppose that ultimately some conclusions can be drawn. For one, though there may be no 'right' answer about what represents truthfulness in photography, it is quite important to at least give the issue a good deal of thought despite the fact that the resultant guidelines might only serve as personal ones. In fact, since there is no 'right' answer, going through the thought process may well be more important than the conclusions.

My (current) personal guidelines are as follows:

1) For photography presented as art, I believe 'anything goes'. Viewers may not like the artist's style if it involves 'over the top' manipulation, but I don't believe that one's artistic expression should be limited simply because the medium happens to be photography. Nor do I think that such art needs to come with a 'disclosure statement' stating that it was manipulated. My one exception to this is #2.

2)I believe that wildlife photography is a separate and special situation and that it should be clearly indicated if the subject was photographed in captivity. Likewise, if anything has been done to substantially change the meaning of the photograph with cloning etc, I think that should also be indicated. It would also be acceptable to simply and clearly state that the images have been altered.

3)Though I am not a photojournalist, I would hope that images where there is misrepresentation (as in the example of the 'revolutionary' given above) would be treated as if they were manipulated.

4)If asked, be truthful...never represent known manipulation as no manipulation.

For further interesting and far more eloquent discussion of how one might consider thinking about these issues as they regard fine art photography, have a look at Alain Briot's essay entitled "Just Say Yes", which can be read here.

So that is my list......have you thought about yours?

"Photography, as we all know, is not real at all. It is an illusion of reality with which we create our own private world." ----------- Arnold Newman