Friday, June 01, 2007

If the camera never lies, can it ever tell the truth?

Jim Johnson has picked up on this at some length in his thoughtful post Eliciting Poignancy, reflecting some of my own thoughts about this picture from the NY Times the first time I saw it.

First off, it is a wonderfully evocative and poignant piece of photojournalism (or, depending on your viewpoint, a masterful piece of propaganda).

"War Dead Honored On Memorial Day
WeekendARLINGTON, VA - MAY 27: Mary McHugh mourns her dead fiance Sgt. James Regan at "Section 60" of the Arlington National Cemetery May 27, 2007. Regan, an American Special Forces soldier, was killed by an IED explosion in Iraq in February of this year, and this was the first time McHugh had visited the grave since the funeral. Section 60, the newest portion of the vast national cemetery on the outskirts of Washington D.C, contains hundreds of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Family members of slain American soldiers have flown in from across the country for Memorial Day. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)"
But then as you dig deeper into how the picture has been made and then edited and presented, it's clear that while it does indeed reflect the facts of its caption, how it presents itself to us isn't quite as unambiguous.

In the picture as it was published in the Times, Mary McHugh appears to be essentially alone in her youthful grief among the rows and rows of new American war dead in the "Iraq" section of Arlington National Cemetery.

Yet when we see another of John Moore's pictures we see this just wasn't so.

And further still, when we view his picture on which the one in the Times is based, it's clear that even in that one, others are present.

But Moore, by carefully manipulating the framing, focused in just on this young war widow. And the editor at the NY Times by "judicial" cropping enhanaced this impression even further.

All of this being regarded, I'm sure, as "traditional" image manipulation and perfectly allowable under the rules of the news game.

But on the other hand, crop out someones insignificant and slightly visually annoying legs at a sports event - and you lose your job, because you did so using the dreaded Photoshop. I still find it intriguing that an editor can chop a big chunk off a photo (as they always have) to make it look stronger and they get kudos for doing their job well, but if the photographer removes an annoying lamppost (or heaven forbid, boosts an orange sky) then it's as if the Spanish Inquisition has descended upon their head (even though there is also a long tradition of this in photojournalism, long before Photoshop was ever dreamed of)

So, who exactly is manipulating who here. And more to the point, does it really matter? Photojournalism has never really ever been about the facts and certainly not always about "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth".

Probably the biggest problem has generally been that people haven't always realised this - especially at time, the photographers themselves.

Photojournalism falls in line with a lot of photography - and has done so since the days of its historic roots - it's about storytelling and appearances (and, cynically, who is paying the bill - less cynically, it's about the inherent opinions and pov of the photographer themselves). It's never been unbiased or objective - but at it's best, it's always been honest (which, for the record, is how I view the picture at the centre of this story).
I've had a number of responses to this post which highlight the confusion surrounding this issue. It boils down to this: the discussions in newsrooms and editorial boards are usually about the nature and the amount of any manipulation which may have been made a photograph (almost always post clicking the shutter) but this misses the point entirely. It's about the effect of the manipulation.
But because there is a high level of denial in such places about the fact that news photographs have always been manipulated (which isn't the same as saying all news photographs are manipulated) - by both photographers and editors - it is a safe way to deal with it. That is, avoid the real issue. And of course, these are the same folks who set the "rules".


Anonymous said...

You make a very good point. I argued many years ago on the NPPA list serv that editing by cropping and selection was often worse than anything done in Photoshop and was beaten up rather badly for having this opinion. It's not that I'm an advocate of photoshoping things out of pictures but the ethical questions of editing are more complicated than most newspaper photographers are willing to admit.

John Denniston
Retired photo editor

tim atherton said...

Oh absolutely John - I had the same argument on the NPPA-L for years during my news/editorial days!

People were screaming and shouting about photoshop as if it were all something new and were totally blind to the "manipulation" involved in selecting viewpoints, cropping, selecting, dodging and burning etc and how it could and often had significantly changed the apparent meaning of news photographs. And what an established history it had

There was the guy who was fired because he made the sky of a very simple photograph of a fireman more orange (it had little serious news value) and yet many of Don McCullins most famous prize winning war photos have the sky burnt almost black in them because "that reflected what it felt like at the time" (not what it looked like)

Anonymous said...

Photoshop has an incredible ability to create realistic manipulations. Like this one of Clinton talking to an alien:

There's a big difference between cropping and cloning. When you crop something away, you're not saying it doens't exist: the viewer is free to fill in what was happening beyond the edges of the frame.

With cloning, you're actually changing the reality of what was in the scene.

tim atherton said...

There's a big difference between cropping and cloning.

no there isn't - which is exactly the point that is so often missed(in addition I should add that the viewer is in no way able to "fill in" what it doesnt know is there...)

The difference between photoshop and "traditional" forms of manipulation is merely a mater of degree

Photoshop just allows these things to be done more efficiently (or more easily by the less skilled).

(and the ability to make very realistic photographs of things that never existed has always been there from the very early days)

Cropping a photograph can alter its meaning much more significantly than removing something insignificant via photoshop.

Dodging and burning has always been used to change the impact of a news photograph, often quite significantly.

editorial photographs have, in the past, had things airbrushed out or added as a mater of course.

as I pointed out, the effect of the changes in the photograph at the top of this post are much more significant than the changes Detrich made and was fired for

it's not about photoshop at all - but that is where all the emphasis is often so incorrectly placed.

It's about integrity and honesty in the presentation of news, as well as about an awareness that most photographs rarely tell the truth.

Anonymous said...

Cropping is an inevitable aspect of photography. Is a photographer who uses a 50mm lens more dishonest than one using a 28mm, because of the narrower field of view?

Maybe at some time in the future, photogs will have the technical capability of grabbing a 360 panorama and presenting that to the viewer to scroll around in. But for paper printing or presentation on the web, choosing a subject in the image is necessary.

As for those photogs fired for cloning or other editing, something that is always forgotten is that they were ignoring the rules that their employers set forth.

tim atherton said...

Ahh - I'm not saying cropping is dishonest. Photoshop is nether honest nor dishonest either.

But cropping can quite easily (and often has) been used to present an image which isn't exactly truthful - of which the subject of this post is a perfect example.

It's a sort of little white visual lie. Of course, the result can also be out and out misrepresentation.

As for those photogs fired for cloning or other editing, something that is always forgotten is that they were ignoring the rules that their employers set forth.

I almost added that into the post, but it was already getting long enough.

My response is - exactly - they broke the "rules" and were pretty dumb. But, the fact remains, those rules are still being developed with a narrow focus on digital manipulation whilst being in denial about the broader issues of the ongoing long history of the manipulation of news photographs - by those who are themselves setting the rules....

Anonymous said...

I think because it's so effortless these days to manipulate an image (say what you want about the old darkroom, but as far as I know, the clone tool is definitely a photoshop era invention), publishers need a zero-tolerance approach to digital editing.

Fake images are so abundant on the internet that people want some assurance that an image they've seen in the newspaper is authentic. A zero-photoshopping policy is one way of attaining that.

(I still think that cropping is different from cloning.)

tim atherton said...

The whole "zero tolerance" thing is very prevalent on the likes of the NPPA-L and really does miss the point (as well as failing to understand the roots of photojournalism)

(say what you want about the old darkroom, but as far as I know, the clone tool is definitely a photoshop era invention)

the airbrush and the scalpel were standard skills in any magazine graphics department of the 1930's to 1960's.

See also "The Commissar Vanishes" (only to appear again later at times....)

and from the very earliest days of photography, cloning has always been practiced

People have never been able to trust a photograph - they just thought they could.


Anonymous said...

Hey Tim. Thanks for picking up on this. (And congrats for winning the prize at State of the Art!)

I think I am with you on this one. Photohop techniques allow manipulation, but so too has arrangement (e.g., Walker Evans inside the sharecropper's shacks in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) and Stalinist style airbrushing (as fictionalized in the opening scene of Kundera's The Book of Laughter & Forgetting). And the example I offered up is clearly an instance of photographer and editors distilling and pulling out aspects of the world in part by removing others and highlighting what they choose.

Why is mourning war dead an individual experience? It is to some extent But in that cemetary it really wasn't - at least it wasn't just that. The message of the published image is that Mary McHugh suffered a tragic individual loss. She did. But there are other possible messages one might develop from that scene. Lots of families are suffering similar losses. And so is the country as a whole. The photographer and editors at The Times are (consciously or otherwise) sending us one message and not the others.

drew said...

This discussion reminds me of Dorothea Lange removing an errant thumb in her own prints of "Migrant Mother." There is no true or authentic image; there is, however, the history of images and their use. While digital technology seemingly simplifies the manipulation of photos, it strikes me that the internet (especially blogs like this) also increases the scrutiny of images. The "biography" of photographs is often immediately made blogger fodder; and that, I believe, is a really good thing.

tim atherton said...

Absolutley Drew - especially the scrutiny aspect - I think it's removing a naivete that has been long misplaced in photography, especially photojournalism.

I've always loved the whole thumb/lange thing. For one thing it just doesn't change the significance of the picture (whatever meaning you chose to put on it) - and it remains an amazing picture.

And also that Lange wasn't' meant to be an objective photojournalist - she was essentially a propagandist - aside from any personal integrity she brought to the whole thing

tim atherton said...


On you whole grieving issue in wartime - I came across this before the internet, when I was working in rural Devon in England

Some people had spoken to me of it, and I read it up somewhere (a book on the history of funeral practices in england I think..) - but I've never followed it up since and double checked.

But apparently, English funerals - especially in country areas - were not the staid stiff upper lip things we always assume them to have beeen. There was often much wailing and gnashing of teeth and open emotion

But once WWI arrived and so many people lost loved ones (with whole village losing 40% or 60% of their men) it became considered to be unseemly when everyone was going through the same thing and it all became much more restrained.

Unknown said...

I got into this a little with Jim and also with Joerg on their sites and in email. Neither agrees with me.

There is so much being assumed about the intentions of those involved, the process involved, the "deconstruction" of what happened when the photographer made the picture that it makes my head spin.

For me it comes down to a few things-if Moore gave permission to crop this picture as it is, then there is NO discussion. End of story. Authorship counts for everything. You can talk all you want about the "effect" of the decision to crop, but if Moore approved it, then that IS the picture. Seeing in effect his "contacts" at Getty tells you nothing.

Secondly, do we actually all agree on the "effect" of the crop? Does it amplify "poignancy"? I think the "effect" is all in our heads, the photo itself says nothing, except to describe space and a moment in time. We bring everything to it. So too to our supposed analysis of what the effect of cropping is. For example, is it any less "true" to say that this picture reflects the "truth" of the subjects feelings at that instant-feeling totally alone, despite being with many other people? All of our transference to this picture comes from our heads, we cannot possibly know what is actually going on, so to say poignancy is somehow amplified is just to observe OUR reactions to this photo. To then draw a line back to the publisher and cite some kind of bias makes no sense. This was the best picture from someone's point of view-if it was the photographer, then as I said, game over. If it was the editor, with permission, game over. If the crop was made without permission, I think we are into another issue, and as a photographer I would be upset to see such a substantial change made without my permission. Usually, I get a call when something like this happens.

Unless we hear from Moore or an editor, this is all speculation.

I agree there is a lot of nervousness in the industry in general over this and photoshop, etc, the zero tolerence thing is simply a rule, something to take the place of actual decision making. For me it will always come back to authorship. Why send a "photographer" if what you want is an unmediated surveilance photo, in effect?

tim atherton said...

For me it comes down to a few things-if Moore gave permission to crop this picture as it is, then there is NO discussion. End of story. Authorship counts for everything. You can talk all you want about the "effect" of the decision to crop, but if Moore approved it, then that IS the picture. Seeing in effect his "contacts" at Getty tells you nothing.

On that point, if that's been your experience, I'd say you're damned lucky!

I think maybe once or twice I've had an editor get back to me about a photo they obtained through an agency that they wanted to crop (sometimes quite dramatically) and certainly never from the NY Times - it's just go ahead and take the scissors to it.

Even when I've been working on direct assignment, it's never been a given.

On the other stuff - if they (editor or photog) didn't think the picture had a better impact for this story then they would surely have used the full image.

That aside, my point is, it doesn't actually matter. Almost all such photography is manipulated in some way or another (in good ways or bad ways depending on where you sit). The big problem remains that most people think photographs tell the truth and the camera never lies (although I'd also say that deep down, most people are actually suspicious that is the case) - hence the title of the post....

Anonymous said...

So much bad faith ... cropping is just like zooming. You take a larger field to be sure you don't miss a thing, than you crop on your subject, It's obviously very different from adding or removing or altering a part of the photo.
The whole point of this anger is it shows a side of this war you'd better like to avoid. With or without other people in the cimetery, her mourning remains the same.