The Elusive Truth of Photographs

Earlier, a short conversation ensued.

Something that I have struggled with for a while (and I continue to struggle). This post, is by no means an expression of any finality. Struggles are continuous. We take them with us to our pyre.

Ethics in Photography: Primarily related to manipulation through digital tools.

I first heard of Photoshop in the very-late 90s. I used to take photographs much before that. I never manipulated photos (I had no means to; didn’t have access to a darkroom). Then, with my introduction to Photoshop, I realised what was possible. It was still not easy. You had to get your photograph printed, scanned, and then manipulated.

Cut, to the last few years.

The ease with which we can now manipulate photos is a critical factor of how many photos we manipulate, and to what extent. When it was the darkroom, and the effort was huge, you’d be satisfied with the photograph you took. Most photo upload sites Instagram, for example, depend on manipulation. Notice how the app is created; the process calls for manipulation. As this became the norm, otherwise puritan sites like Flickr (yes kids, there’s something called Flickr, and yes, there’s an app for that) joined the bandwagon, and created a manipulate-first strategy. Like we have mobile-first strategy. The humble smartphone camera, humble, no more, now included built-in editing tools. It’s worth noticing, also, that the editing tools are primarily auto-fix or filters. Not Levels, or Curves, and such (I know some apps have them, so don’t kill me for saying it). Why bother users with complex scientific concepts like a Histogram? Why teach core concepts of amount of light and duration of light? Focus on publishing!

All of the above, only to establish our current environment. No judgement, at least not yet.

Let’s come back to the short conversation that ensued.

A participant in a photography competition withdrew his entry, after it was found that he had retouched a photo to remove undesirable artefacts from the photo — in this case, a straw-like-thingy.

The question that was posed: Ethical Violation or Technical Breach.

My instant response was: Technical Breach. And it was so, because the competition disallowed major manipulation:

The rules of the contest state that “No cloning, montaging or digital manipulation other than cropping, ‘digital spotting’, burning and dodging is permitted,” so the photographer alerted Walkey about the suspicious submission. [Link]

For those of us who think that digitally manipulated photos are an ethical violation, I ask: is cropping fine? Or Burning? Or Dodging? In my opinion, cropping is completely removing a context in a frame! By showing me a photograph that is devoid of some context (by cropping) the photographer is changing meaning. Pretty much like sensational headlines or context-bereft sound bites. Then, are you making the sky look more blue? The leaves more green? Are you, Mr. Photographer, deceiving me? Was the sky really a dull boring blue that was almost white, when you saw it? Were the leaves not as you had imagined?

I am not advocating an ultimate realism in photography. As a person who takes photographs, I know that reality changes every millisecond, and so does context.

Broadly, photography serves two realms: that of documentation and that of art.

If an artist painter, who uses a canvas and oil paints were to paint a sky that was true blue (as most of us imagine it to be) we would never question it. Yet, fact of the matter is, we rarely see a blue sky as blue as we imagine it to be. We applauded the orange-grey-green-blue abstract skies of JMW Turner. When a photographer HDR’ed a sky, we felt cheated. This is the first realm of photography, and that is art.

The ethical questions, essentially come in the second realm — documentary photography. This realm deals with reality, harsh reality. And I am not talking of gory photos of dead bodies and such that we see on social media these days. If a photo’s purpose is to show you reality, and if it is manipulated — to edit meaning or create a new meaning — it is, clearly an ethical violation.

Common to both these realms is how we take photos. Given the means and the ease that has been afforded to us, the line between art and documentary photography has blurred beyond recognition. Whereas, we should be seeing photos as either art or as documentary, we are looking at them as manipulated or not.

“Both those taking snaps and documentary photographers, however, have not understood ‘information.’ What they produce are camera memories, not information, and the better they do it, the more they prove the victory of the camera over the human being.” ~ Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography

This post wasn’t going to be complete without a quote from my guru.

Where do I stand?

In the simplest of terms, capturing a moment, for me, has always been about amount of light and duration of light. Primarily. That is what makes a good photograph. Now that the basics are covered, a photographer creates meaning. That is what makes an interesting photograph.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the manipulation of photographs; if presented as art. For, if you are photographer, you know that the real manipulation begins, before you click. When you set your aperture, when you compose, when you set your shutter speed. When you choose to include something or exclude something in the frame, that’s when manipulation has started. In a digital editing tool, you are only continuing the process. Even if you add a simple border, that’s manipulation.

Except, if you are documenting. Documentation is essentially boring. There is no need to manipulate that. Just file it, and be done. And when (and if) you manipulate a documentary photo, you are crossing really thick lines.

Here is a case study:

2015-11-03 12.03.06

This is a photograph I took of an AC fan, outside my office, with my mobile phone camera. After a few minutes, this is what I posted, on Instagram.

#fan #circle #circular #concentric #grill #yellow #blades #web #airconditioning #aircon

A post shared by Atul Sabnis (@atulsabnis) on

Do you feel cheated? Or did you just not care, and enjoyed the Instagram? Now that you know the raw truth, what do you feel?

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9 thoughts on “The Elusive Truth of Photographs

  1. Digital technologies have made stuff like this so easy, that no one ever stops to think whether it is right or wrong. I think that is not even in their frame of reference.
    I usually use photshop for two things – a) to put the copy right logo, b) to put the frames. But there are times i play in lightroom. Not always,but about 25% of the time.
    The way i would answer this conundrum is this -if we were shooting on film, and we knew how to process negatives, we would. And, in that we would take care of minor issues to create a final image we want.
    For me the issues are more with altering a image – taking out a straw, or making someone look thinner, or adding a beach 🙂 it is less with minor fixes.

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    • If a photo is manipulated to deliberately mislead – yes, that is unethical. There are, however, some grey areas, when manipulation occurs. In a way, we all dislike manipulation to a certain degree. And that value is different for different people. 🙂

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  2. I guess my first response that pops into my regarding this debate, no matter how the photograph is taken and edited or not edited, it is not reality. It is a photography. Shakespeare didn’t actually believe all the world’s a stage. If one is talking cameras that use film (as opposed to digital cameras), you have so many variables such as shutter speed. Change the shutter speed and you change the “reality.”

    These days I think pretty much everyone (maybe I’m being too generous) understands photographs are manipulated from cropping to color saturation to color tone. When I manipulate a photograph, my general goal is to get it to look as I saw it, not as the camera captured it. The photo is a reflection of my personal (literal) vision. Other times a photograph is so obviously manipulated, one judges the quality of the photo in large part on how well the photographer manipulated it with the tools available (similar to a painter that uses tools to push and otherwise manipulate the oils or acrylics).

    So the issue, to the extent there is an issue, is when it is believed the photographer is attempting to hide manipulation and assert what the viewer sees is basically what the camera (film or digital, given its settings) produced. I think this is why many professsional photographers give all the details of shutter speed, etc when they took the photograph.

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    • Agree with you completely. As I said in my reply to the comment above, the ‘deliberateness’ of the manipulation *and* the ‘choosing’ to hide is problematic. The sense in which a photographer sees an image *through* the lens (which has a set of its own rules) means that the image is manipulated.

      Thanks for the lovely comment. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think photoshop (and more so insta-filters and the likes) have done to photography what sequencer (if I’m correct about it) has done to music. They have democratized these arts. And I don’t say this in a positive sense :). It has, for instance, made someone with no real understanding of photography to try and dabble in it, without learning much, but how to use filters. Even something like cropping is a lazy substitute for in-line framing, something a good photographer had to do some time back. Now, one can do and redo and undo, till it looks about right.

    But that’s the purist in me talking. I agree with you. When photography is not “documenting”, it’s a free game. Final output matters — does it meet requirements of photograph: connotation and denotation? Aesthetics? So on and so forth. As a viewer, one may or may not appreciate manipulation — assuming that it can be detected. That’s a personal choice. But as an “artist” (I know I’m taking this far), every photographer has to decide how much of manipulation is fine “during” the capture, and how much “after”.

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    • Well said. I always look for a ‘body of work’ of a photographer. It helps me understand the sense of manipulation — pre-click and post-click — that occurs. It gives me a better sense of the work. Personally, I have no complains against manipulation, pre- or post-production. However, like Harini mentioned above, deliberately misleading manipulated photographs, I dislike.

      The democratisation of photography has indeed allowed much self-expression to happen – and that’s a good thing. The not so good thing, is that there’s also too much of noise. In fact, even some of the curated works are “noisy.” There’s just *too much* photographic content out there.

      PS: I don’t think I have seen many of your photographs using ‘heavy’ manipulation. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As usual you have given me much to think about. I am a terrible photographer, but I love and appreciate beautiful photographs. I especially love street photography, people captured in a moment of living. I have no idea what the guidelines should be for anything these days, because editing, cropping, filtering, air brushing, and enhancing ourselves before we present ourselves for public consumption is the norm. Extreme examples would be athletes taking drugs to be stronger and faster, or people having surgery to change their faces and bodies so they’re more acceptable to society’s ideas of attractiveness. We all put on our masks before we go out. Perhaps photo shopping is natural to the human condition of seeking an ideal. We want the unattainable made flesh so to speak and so enhanced photographs make perfect sense.Unfortunately Documentation is very subjective, so can we ever know the truth? History shows us truth has many faces and I love that. To see all sides of a matter is what I strive for, but my personality, biases, and shortcomings often get in the way of perceiving things as they are. To be human is to be flawed.

    I loved your picture of the air conditioning fan. It’s all in the point of view and you proved your point well.

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