Image Fixity

I’ve just been reading this excellent article on the various photo-scandals that have already unfolded this year. In light of some of the examples and issues it raises, I began to wonder once again about the motivations photographers hold for condemning image manipulation.

Aside from the obvious ethical concerns about changing the meaning of images, the reality is that many high profile cases of image manipulation are just boringly aesthetic changes (for example the case of Stepan Rudik) and don’t really seem to do any more to change the meaning or substance of an image than many of the choices the photographer already made before they took the photograph in terms of equipment, positioning, timing, editing, and so on.

Press Photographers, 1929, - Bundesarchiv Bild 102-08739

Press Photographers, 1929, – Bundesarchiv Bild 102-08739

I began to wonder if by professing the fixity of a photograph’s content and claiming unaltered, unadulterated continuity between the moment of shooting and the audiences subsequent viewing that the photographer somehow feels they are making the image more real. More real because in making the image unchangeable it becomes more like the irretrievable and unchangeable reality it depicts, and less like the very malleable, changeable two dimensional visual artifact a photograph actually is.

I wonder also if condemning manipulation as a perversion of photojournalism’s mission to represent the truth of things offers a handy distraction from the more profound problems of photography, and of course the inherent unaccountability of much journalistic image making, which makes it all so easy for photographers like Paollo Pellegrin to accidentally or intentionally miss-caption images without it necessarily ever being noted. How many photographers have done this to some extent and not been caught, I wonder? Probably all of us, I know for certain I have mistakenly captioned images in the past in ways that have implications for the images understanding, or captioned them with less information than I might have done.

It seems to me that one of the real strengths of photography is its non-fixity of substance and meaning and its reliance on context, maybe either embrace this or stop using it?

One thought on “Image Fixity

  1. “I wonder also if condemning manipulation as a perversion of photojournalism’s mission to represent the truth of things offers a handy distraction from the more profound problems of photography, and of course the inherent unaccountability of much journalistic image making, …”

    For me photojournalism presents ‘a truth of things’ rather than ‘the truth of things’ and that, perhaps subtle, distinction is key for me.

    I think any image that claims to portray ‘the truth’ is problematic. Whether any image can claim to be wholly ‘truthful’ is debatable. ‘Truth’ is not something represented by a single image per se, but perhaps more closely approximated in a sequential sense, carried forwards in a photographer’s career, a body of work done over a long period, where integrity has been a cornerstone of the work undertaken.

    ‘A truth’ is a more realistic description, as it necessarily acknowledges other truths that are evident in any situation that you might consider.

    I guess ‘good work’ should present – in images and in captions – a nuanced description of whats being represented, and in a way that allows a viewer to consider the work as a slice of a continuum with varying viewpoints and interpretations.

    I worked in Social Work (Disability Services) for a couple of decades (as well as being a photographer) and in SW when interpreting the behaviour of any individual we had to consider the ABC in any situation where we were trying to analyse what was going on: Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence – and I’ve found that useful in photography when ‘interpreting’ work.

    When I look at work I want to know what exactly I’m being shown, if at all possible what happened before that, and what happened afterwards.

    I need to understand whether what I’m seeing is A or B or C.

    That simple analytical device, for me at least, works, and provides a context that allows me to determine where some semblance of ‘a truth’ actually resides.

    But maybe that’s straying from the main thrust of your post: that its easier to criticize ‘surface’ alterations, the “aesthetics” you mention, than the complexities of the subject/activity/scene being portrayed: I thinknyou’re right, it is easier to do that.

    And I think too many people then equate that ‘manipulation’ with ‘untruthfulness’ of content. Which is an argument I don’t buy!

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