Writing on photography

Sordid Aesthetics

The last week saw yet another tedious photo-scandal. A questionable forensic analysis led to the accusation that Paul Hansen’s World Press Prize (WPP) winning photograph was in fact a composite, which was followed by a denial from Hansen, a counter-analysis by the WPP which largely disproved the initial analysis, and a final ruling that the original award would be upheld. Then followed the usual slew of boring articles on the technical elements of the case and a certain amount of people siding with or against Hansen.

I wouldn’t normally want to add anything to this, these periodic photo-scandals are routine to the point of boredom. They play themselves out and are forgotten again in time for the next one to surface a month or two later as if no lessons had been learnt. Except this case encompasses so many facets of the debate about photomanipulation that it seems like a good opportunity to put down some very broad thoughts on what this issue says about the photojournalism industry, and photography in general. I apologise in advance that this maybe isn’t as considered or polished as what I would normally write, take it as more of an ill considered outpouring of things that have been troubling me for a while.

Secretively manipulating images is seen as one of the cardinal sins of photojournalism, an act against the natural order of things, almost akin to incest. Careers can be destroyed by these sorts of accusations when the prove to be true, just as careers are probably often made in the first place by photographers peddling heavily edited photographs. Such are the stakes, so it goes. Justifying the severity of the punishments meted out for this behaviour, it is often argued that as well distorting the truth of the individual photographs subjected to it, manipulation has the effect of undermining the evidential value of all photographs. To misquote Donne, ‘no photograph is an island, entire of itself…’.

This all seems very clear, except low level manipulations like cropping are still in widespread use by journalists, and are seen as indispensable tools, despite being just as capable of distorting the meaning of an image (check out the Stepan Rudik case). This makes for a confusing situation, a result of an industry that wants to have its cake and eat it. Critics of manipulation often resort to vague, shorthand terms to mask this huge contradiction. For example WPP’s own guidelines which states that ‘only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards’. As Joerg Colberg pointed out when this new rule was added in 2009 in the wake of Rudik case, ‘currently accepted’ doesn’t really mean anything.

The real concern I think isn’t with the idea that the fabric of an individual image has been interfered with, or that the truth has been distorted (does anyone really still believe photographs are true?). Hansen may have extensively altered his photograph, but we still understand the substance of his image to be more or less accurate, in that it reflects what happens in certain parts of the world all too often (ever is too often). Indeed the documented cases where a journalist has intentionally, deceptively sought to alter the meaning of an image by manipulation are relatively few compared to the overwhelming number who have done it for the sake of aesthetics. The simple sordid reason of trying to make a photograph look better, as Hansen presumably did, to increase the chances of a sale or a prize.

No, I think instead concern about manipulation stems from something much more childish. On the one hand a sense of cheating, that the photographer has achieved his end result not by photographic talent alone, that they have therefore broken ‘the rules’ (but as serial image manipulator W. Eugene Smith pointed out, who made these rules, and who ordered us to abide to them?). On the other hand, a sense of betrayal of the audience by the photographer, as if the secret workings of the magic trick has been revealed. The photograph suddenly seems so disappointing and so shallow, similar in effect to discovering a concert was lip synched and just as inconsequential.

This idea of betrayal leads the obvious question, what right do we have to feel betrayed, should we trust journalists so implicitly? These people who are essentially self-appointed, largely unaccountable, and increasingly independent even from the limited oversight offered by rapidly atrophying traditional news organisations? Don’t many of us retain a naive mental picture of the noble press that belongs to Hollywood films of the forties, an image which has no place today in an age of increasingly autonomous freelancers, anonymous citizen journalists, and distant editors?

Since the United Kingdom’s Leveson inquiry into press ethics, the camps in this country seem more clearly divided than ever between those who believe journalists are righteous heroes who can do no wrong and those who think they are scum out to profit by exploitation and misrepresentation. Part of coming to terms with occasional cases of press deception, whether perpetrated by image manipulation or other methods, involves I think a moving towards a more realistic way of viewing the profession, as something somewhere between the two extremes, neither idolised nor demonised.

Returning specifically to the current case, Hansen argued that what he did was only ‘to recreate what the eye sees’, overcoming the limitations of camera technology to create an image that was more real. This is a defense that has been used many times before, and it’s not an entirely invalid one. The First World War photographer Frank Hurley used the same argument to justify his use of composite techniques in what were supposed to be documentary photographs. His images were decried at the time as ‘fakes’, but are now regarded as some of the most accurate representations of the conflict. The main difference between the two cases is Hurley was upfront about his practices from the start.

The problem with desiring to make photographs more real is that it just highlights their very irreal quality, the fact that while a photo may often fall short or sometimes even exceed our experience of something, it will never be equal to it. In the quest for something that is more real photographers often end up producing, as Hansen did, a hyper-real, cinematic photograph, which distracts from the content and does more to further undermine the medium’s fragile grip on reality than to reassert it. As Jens Kjeldsen wrote on viewing such photographs ‘I remain a spectator immersed in the story, in awe of the artwork, waiting for the movie to premiere.’

From movie poster to video game, after judging the competition in 2009, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin made much of the WPP’s rapid game show style judging system, writing of how ‘Each of us clasped a voting button in the half darkness, and as the images flashed across the screen we voted anonymously to keep it in the competition or “to kill it”. They also noted the lack of captions, meaning any image that required context to be understood fell by the wayside. The need to manipulate in order to produce images that are ‘more real than real’ isn’t just a product of the technical limitations of photography. It’s the result of an industry that, whatever it’s rhetoric, trades primarily in aesthetics, and which in its dealings with that troubled commodity is increasingly geared towards the quick consumption of photographs which are perhaps visually remarkably, but materially rife with cliché. Photographs that illustrate or titilate, rather than inform or provoke. in 1980 Andy Grundberg speculated this would be the consequence of the growing avaliability of photo-manipulation software, instead it has been the result of the industry that claims to safeguard photographic truth.

I’ve rambled and I’ve roamed, and I don’t have a big conclusion to make to all of this, just a feeling that grows with each year, as I see another set of prize winning photographs like those I’ve described unveiled. A sense of disquiet that stems from the knowledge that the judging chamber of the World Press Prize is in many ways the locus of an industry. The point of collection for photo-journalistic practice radiating inwards from tens of thousands of photographers, before emanating outwards again. To be absorbed by millions of people, who’s understanding of the value and power of photojournalism will be informed, perhaps even formed by the decisions made within. A feeling that much is wrong in mainstream photojournalism, and that if we need to rely on it for anything  but simplistic illustration and gratuitous aestheticising, then we might be in trouble.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography