It’s a Cloudy, Liquid World

Part three in a three part ethics series

This is a three part examination of “Truth” in photojournalism. Part one deals with the reality behind the image, part two deals with honesty, accuracy and the meaning of the word “truth”, and part three deals with the power of the real photograph.

These three columns originally appeared in the January, February and March 2011 issues of News Photographer Magazine.

By John Long

The honest photograph has power because it is real.

 “I have a radical idea: let’s not follow anyone. Let’s follow our best instincts and create a new way of doing.” – John Long

I was quietly watching television one day when on came a Microsoft Windows 7 “To The Cloud” commercial. It showed a woman working on a photograph of her family members who were sitting for a group portrait and she was taking their heads from different frames in order to make one good photograph. She ends by saying, “Windows gives me the family nature never could.” It was being touted as a good thing.

 I sat there thinking, “Brian Walski was fired for doing the same thing.”

Is there any hope for our profession? I am less and less convinced there is, almost daily. And yet I refuse to give up hope.

I have long been aware of the book The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era by William J. Mitchell of MIT, published in 1992. He stated that we were experiencing a paradigm shift in our perception of the very nature of photography. We had always thought of a photograph as a solid, two-dimensional object, a moment in time caught forever on a piece of paper. But in the age of computers, the photograph was becoming liquid, changeable – each time we changed even a single pixel, we created a new original, and if we created images with an electronic camera, we had no referent to go back to, no negative, no beginning point.

The public has come to view photographs this way. Photojournalists have clung to the notion that a photograph should show what the photographer saw and what the camera recorded, period. I am not sure how much longer we can hold out against what seems to be a force of nature. We either defend our vision of what makes an honest photograph or we find a new way of presenting honest information visually in a liquid environment, and I have no idea how that can be accomplished. If the generation coming out of college today cannot answer this question, photojournalism is dead.

The ethics I have been espousing for the last 20 years are based on a vision of photography created by and lived by Robert Capa, Eddie Adams, the Turnley brothers, Life magazine, Bill Eppridge, and my personal hero, David Douglas Duncan. It is the ethics of accuracy.

The transition from our traditional view of photography to the new world of electronic photojournalism has given rise to an enhanced interest in ethics and been the cause of much confusion in our discussions of ethics.

How we make photographs has changed drastically. I remember the first time I made a print. I was amazed at the magic as the image emerged on the white piece of paper floating in a bath of Dektol. I remember making separations and putting a halftone screen on photographs, and tipping the easel to correct parallel lines, and using hot breath to darken areas or potassium ferricyanide to lighten areas. I could read a negative. I could make a color print. I had skills. The very nature of the old processes determined or at least influenced the ethics of photography and photojournalism for us. Students today know computers. This has changed how they perceive photography and with this different perception comes a new way of defining ethics, at least in part.

This is the liquid environment. This is the paradigm shift Mitchell talked about and it really is more profound than I ever expected.

The working conditions faced by photojournalists today have made it difficult to remain ethical in the face of demands by cost-centered leadership to take the easy way out. If an editor finds it easier to use Photoshop to change a flawed photograph than to send a photographer back to fix the situation by reshooting, then that is what happens (this has been true since 1982 when National Geographic moved the Pyramids in their computer instead of sending a photographer back to reshoot the photograph as a vertical for the cover). If a photographer balks at having his or her photograph altered, he or she can be laid off. There are a million kids out there just waiting for an opening. How can you defend your ethics when your family needs to eat?

Now that all photographers (television and still) work in same department, whose honesty is paramount? Whose is the lowest face on the totem pole? Who will not compromise to hold onto a job? Integrity has a price sometimes.

Add to these problems the fact that so many still photojournalists have been asked to become videographers or to work for Web sites where speed means everything and quality is a totally alien concept. Do we slap together photographs from spare parts, or set up fake moments, just to get it quick and up online where the only value is the value of the next 10 minutes?

Do we adopt the ethics of our television brethren? Theirs is a time-tested process shaped by the technical restrictions of motion and sound and the fact they have to work with “stars.” How does a still photographer steeped in the values of documentary still photojournalism become a viable videographer? I am not knocking the ethics of my television brethren. It is just that the ethics we in newspapers live by have evolved differently. Should we live by the ethics of stills when we are making stills, live by television ethics when we are making videos, and live by the ethics of radio people when we are creating audio? And I might add, do we abandon all fact checking when we shoot for the Web?

These challenges to today’s photojournalists make my esoteric debates on art or removing meaningless details from photos with Photoshop seem petty. We are overwhelmed with the realities of life, threatened with economic disaster and bombarded by the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann.

And yet, my heart will always be with the traditional. I believe deeply in the value of the real photograph. The great photograph is a window into history. It allows us to be present as history is happening, to see for ourselves the moment Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot at the Lorraine Motel, to see Lee Harvey Oswald crumble with a bullet in his abdomen, to see the effects of war on a little Vietnamese girl burned by napalm, to see the invasion on D-Day. And also to see history in much less spectacular fashion as it happens in our local town councils, or school sporting events, or any of the events that make up our daily lives. The honest photograph has power because it is real. It has power because it shows us exactly what the photographer saw and what the camera captured at the moment the shutter was tripped. History demands accuracy.

There is value in these images. There is no value to the photograph when “Windows gives me the family nature never could.”

Write to Long at jlong35@cox.net.