Each time there is an outcry over a photojournalist manipulating a photograph I try to convince myself to stay quiet. I tell myself I will not write about it, remind myself that the last time around I said everything I felt needed to be said. But as I start to read what others have written I begin to think that perhaps what was said before needs to be said again. Perhaps a mistake, grist to the wrong mill, but here we go…
Last week The Associated Press (AP) severed ties with photographer Narciso Contreras after he revealed he had manipulated one of his photographs to remove a camera belonging to a fellow journalist. He joins a long line of photographers who have (or have almost) run afoul of strict industry rules on manipulation. Hansen, Rudik , Walski, Hajj, are just four well known examples who spring to mind, but there are many others, and still I suspect many more who have never been caught out. Contreras is a virtual rarity, in that he was not unmasked unwillingly, but rather revealed his transgressions himself.
Manipulation is considered a most severe offense in photojournalism, with a somewhat contradictory exception made for many of the most extreme forms, like cropping or converting an image to black and white. The Guardian’s head of photography Roger Tooth explains the severity of the punishment meted out on Contreras by AP by arguing that ‘major wire agencies and their clients rely on their images being totally authentic’. Exactly what they are authentic to remains an unspoken and unanswered question.
The idea that news companies deal in hard facts and unadulterated truths is absolutely central to their reputation, and by connection their survival as businesses (which, let us not forget, they are first and foremost, however often they might be dressed up in the language of public service). We pay them to tell us the truth, or what passes for it, not to admit or analyse the uncertainties of what they do. What Contreras did was on one level to reveal some of these uncertainties.
He has reminded us how constructed photographs are, and how they are made as much in the time after their taking as in the moment the shutter is pressed. He has reminded us of the long chain of editing and selection, which stand between us and that moment in Syria. He has reminded us that the press propagate a very particular vision both of their subjects, and themselves. All things I suspect news organisations would rather not discuss, because they create doubt, and undermine certainty in their enterprise.
From that chain of selection which links us to that moment in Syria, Roger Tooth speaks in his piece of another chain. He argues that the work of agencies like AP and the outlets who buy content from them is ‘all about a chain of trust: from the photographers through to the agencies, newspapers and websites, and then to the readers. If that chain is broken, any picture could be suspect, and that can’t be allowed to happen.’ That is again a common sentiment amongst proponents of photojournalism, that the truth of photography must be continually shored up against the erosive waves of untruth.
Because of the way the photojournalism industry has built itself up as an unassailable bastion of truth, I think we will never have any serious debate or forward movement in the argument around photomanipulation, it’s ethical limits, and how it’s use ties into an industry often as obsessed with appearances as fashion or advertising. Photographers like Contreras will continue to be punished by the same people who have previously encouraged them (implicitly or explicitly) to construct and alter photographs according to specific parameters, and in pursuit of a certain aesthetic that has little to do with ‘authenticity’. Because there is no room for doubt there will never be any room the type of vital dialogue and discussion that can only ever emerge from doubt. Or at least there will be discussion, but never at the institutional levels where it needs to occur in order for anything significant to change.
Lacking a serious internal response to this and other long standing contradictions, the only obvious alternative is for viewers and consumers of photojournalism to formulate their own response. In contrast to Tooth’s hope that press photographs should retain their integrity in the eyes of audiences I’d argue for the opposite, that as viewers we should consider it our business to treat all press photographs as fundamentally suspect. We should never accept a photograph which appears to show something important at face value. We should always try to view it not just in terms of what is in the frame, but what is lacking from it. This external information will almost always remain beyond knowing, but the act of remembering it is there is significant in itself. In truth, deception. In deception, truth.