Monday, July 20, 2009

Believing the Lies

There are stories about doctored photos that go back to when photography first started. During the Cold War the USSR was famous for rewriting history to suit a political need. One of the more famous shots from the USSR was of a group of astronauts. There are two versions of the same shot. The story goes that one of the astronauts died in an accident. I'm a little hazy on if he met his end in space or in a launch pad accident, but in version two of exactly the same shot he was gone. Playing with the content of an image has been the subject of great debates. Over the weekend I was teaching a group some Photoshop tricks. I showed how the colors in an image (similar, but not the same as today's images) can be manipulated to convey a different version of "reality". One of the attendees called out that the simple change of color was "cheating". The "original", in today's case, is the smaller image. To get my thoughts on "cheating, hit the "read more".

The key to if it was "cheating" is intent. Not the moral conundrum of making any change being "cheating". The intent we have here is what is the image's function. If the shot were to be used for a story about "why there isn't any variety in kayak colors", obviously this type of manipulation would carry some serious weight. Photojournalist's have been fired over things like that. Rightly so. If a photo is trying to tell a "true" story, you'd better have a "truthful" representation of what went on. In the case of the USSR photo of the astronauts it was obvious that the "intent" of the second (doctored) photo was to mislead. There is a "code of conduct" for folks trying to make their living informing the public through photography.
Another area would be pure nature photography. If a photographer got to the "dry darkroom" of the computer, only to find he/she had two "almost" good shots it could present an issue. One shot where the body of a bird looked great and the head was turned in an awkward position and another shot with the body looking clumsy, but the head looking great. It would be just as improper to switch heads as it would be to put a pigeon's head on a robin's body. Nature photography relies on accuracy, not believability. A photographer approached me at a competitive event a while back and informed me, in no uncertain terms, that my image was unsuitable to be in that competition. I asked him to explain his thinking. His claim was that, since there was no "hand of man", the image was a nature image and the colors in the image didn't exist in nature. Therefore, it was not a true representation of the natural world and shouldn't be used to give the impression someone could go to the place the shot was taken and see the same colors. He came so close. The one thing he missed was intent. It wasn't entered as a nature image. It was entered as a artistic, pictorial image. The intent was to have the viewer get a "feeling" of the place, not to believe such a place existed. One of last week's images was a garish image of the same stream. (I go back there semi often.) I don't think anyone would mistake it for a nature shot. Intent is what separates the use of a print or technique, not other people's interpretation of what your meaning is.
That brings us to today's images and the person who thought I had "cheated" by changing the color of an object in an image. As long as the "intent" is "art" and not a realistic recording of an event or scene, manipulation of colors or objects or other changes to the original capture is not a problem. Hell, look in any magazine. The images of the models (female or male) in the ads aren't there as photojournalism, they're there for advertisement. It's trying to sell something. There is a trend that's gaining a little steam among some public figures that they be shown "warts and all". Sure, before going in front of the camera the makeup is flawless, but if there's a small "love handle" at the waist they want it to be shown "as is".
There's a difference between the recording of an event or scene and the "art" of photography. Sometimes you get both. Check out my friend Kathy's blog (link) about the ballet event she just shot. You'll see a great union of recording a scene and art. The two (art and reality) don't have to be mutually exclusive. Intent is the key.