Journal

When Facts Fail

Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow…
— T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

In recent weeks, the conversation surrounding the age old question of image manipulation in photojournalism has hit fever pitch - again.

First, there was this story by Dallas Morning News photographer Louis DeLuca about a Sports Illustrated image that ran in their "Leading Off" section back in November. DeLuca broke the story on SI's choice to change the color of Baylor's jerseys from black to green.

The photo by Matthew Emmons/US Presswire as it appeared in Sports Illustrated

The photo by Matthew Emmons/US Presswire as it appeared in Sports Illustrated

Matthew Emmons original photo as submitted through the wire service

Matthew Emmons original photo as submitted through the wire service

Then, last week, PhotoShelter Co-founder, Allen Murabayashi railed on several of the recent winners in the World Press Photo of the Year 2012 competition. In both of his articles on the subject, Murabayashi took issue with how much digital color toning took place & argued against using such techniques, saying:

I know what the world looks like when I step out the door [emphasis his], and it doesn’t look like some of the news images I’m seeing nowadays. And I am arguing that this is having an insidious effect on how we perceive reality.

He goes on to ask:

If photojournalists, their organizations, and their industry care about veracity, what is there to argue about when calling for the RAW when the truth is in question?

Ah, that great & confusing T word - truth.

Paul Hansen's winning World Press Photo of the Year

Paul Hansen's winning World Press Photo of the Year

As a storyteller, this is a word I've reflected on quite a bit and before we get too far into my rebuttal, I want to make one thing explicitly clear - I am not a photojournalist, so my perspective isn't bent in the direction of The Preeminent Fact, neither do I believe this invalidates my position. Where most of the conversation around this topic takes place in either the blacks or the whites, I want to assert there is in fact a shadowy gray we, as image makers and storytellers, should consider. In my professional life, I have come to understand that the facts are always subject to the Truth and, truth be told, I believe the facts can often be incredibly misleading to anyone pursuing the Truth. Admittedly, I'm far more Hunter S. Thompson than Joseph Pulitzer. And I'm okay with that.

So, when Sports Illustrated makes a choice to change the color of the jersey, I nod in agreement because I believe, while the original image is factually correct, it is at the same time completely misleading. The black jerseys against the dark background, while factual, obscure the story. The SI edit alters the facts, yes, but it allows the audience full, unencumbered access to the emotional truth of the story - a team triumphant.

Maybe, just maybe, war photography pioneer Roger Fenton understood this basic idea when he chose to move the cannonballs in his iconic image Valley of the Shadow of Death. Errol Morris hints at this very idea in the first article of his tremendous 2007 series on the two versions of this historic image:

In this version of Fenton's 'Valley of the Shadow of Death' the canon balls have been removed from the road.

In this version of Fenton's 'Valley of the Shadow of Death' the canon balls have been removed from the road.

And in this version, the canon balls either remain in the road, or have been arranged there.

And in this version, the canon balls either remain in the road, or have been arranged there.

Morris ponders, "Maybe [Fenton] saw the balls on the road and felt they looked fake, and removed them in the interest of creating a more honest picture." Or, maybe it was the opposite. Whichever came first, maybe, Fenton was simply after a more honest picture.

If only we could all conduct ourselves "in the interest of creating a more honest picture". I believe this is the central question that Mr. Murabayashi is getting to in his argument against the World Press Photo winners. He just wants something honest and believes the facts will get us there. This position fails as a theory, however, because it fails to extend the photographers in question the benefit of the doubt. Since they were present at the foot of the funeral procession and the lip of the pool, can't we agree they understand the complexity of the Truth they witnessed? They, alone, have the full weight of the context in which the images were created ringing in their ears. Should we not extend them the professional courtesy of using their best judgement when it comes to processing technique?

photo by Damon Winter/New York Times

photo by Damon Winter/New York Times

photo by Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press

photo by Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press

Every photographic decision is fraught with constraint and therefore requires a large dose of subjectivity. Was Damon Winter (easily one of my modern photographic heroes) wrong to "omit" the media horde from some of his 2010 images in Haiti? Or was Rodrigo Abd of the Associated Press wrong to include them? Could the answer not lie somewhere in the middle. Interpretation of fact is subjective, no? I don't want to sound too post-modern, because I don't subscribe to the "there is no truth" philosophy. However, I do recognize that while there is certainly a knowable Truth, no one man or woman can ever discern it fully; we are limited by the facts available to our singular perspective. We must simply do our best to understand what we see, press the camera to our eye and make a choice as to what stays in the frame and what falls away for all eternity.

Complicating this already slippery slope is the fact that technology has evolved to the point where we can make a judgement call on the details that express the emotional truth of a scene. No longer are we limited by the facts as they were recorded by the chemical make up of a roll of film. We can dial in color temperature, add or subtract saturation and luminosity in individual color channels and manipulate contrast, black levels, sharpness, and on and on. Shooting RAW gives you infinite control over not just the basic facts, but also over the emotional truth.

Mr. Murabayashi believes that the truth is in danger; I would argue we're finally at a point where photographers can finally hone in on it with great accuracy.

Most of the choices photographers have to make are subjective interpretations of the less than honest facts available in the moment. They always have been. The question becomes, is the manipulation trustworthy. This morning, David Hobby wrote on the days of the darkroom in a post titled Analog Photoshop:

Many news photographers were publicly sacrificed to the Ethics Gods. Meanwhile, National Geographic Magazine happily moved entire pyramids on their cover photos. Sigh.

I'm not sure if his sigh is directed at the the injustice of The Ethics Gods or at the audacity of Nat Geo pursuing a more honest picture. Again, I believe Nat Geo has earned our trust, just as Sports Illustrated has earned the trust of its audience, over time. On track record alone, we should be praising them for being brave enough to make bold choices knowing there are times when facts fail to render an honest depiction of the Truth.

I, for one, am thankful for where we are in the history of photography. Like Mr. Murabayashi, I know what the world feels like when I step outside my door, but unlike him, I am loathe to consider what it would be like if Marcin Ryczek had left his house with only color film in his bag the day he created this image:

Marcin Ryczek - Swans