By John Long
“To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn) and a time for every purpose, under Heaven.”
Pete Seeger, based on Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
The old folk song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” kept drifting into my head after leaving the Northern Short Course last week. The angst was so thick you could cut it with a knife; CHANGE was the only constant. At least three conversations I had with the people doing portfolio reviews gravitated to the same question: “What do we tell these kids when they ask ‘Should I get into photojournalism? What is the industry going to be like in 30 years? Will I be able to make a living? Is there a place for still photography?’” We looked at each other in silence or quoted some platitudes about how “the future always takes care of itself,” but none of us really bought it. The keynote speech by Tom Kennedy brilliantly captured this spirit. I felt like Columbus on the Santa Maria looking at the horizon and wondering if the world was round or if his ship was just going to sail off the edge into oblivion. We had no answers for the kids.
The ethics discussion we had at the NSC felt exactly the same. The verities are morphing. Something is happening; something deep and basic. The Moment as we have known it felt like Jell-o. The pat answers no longer seemed to work. Is an honest image what the camera recorded or a recreation of what the photographer saw?
In his 1992 book, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era William J. Mitchell of MIT described what he referred to as a paradigm shift in the very nature of how we perceive a photograph. He explained how the concept of a Moment, frozen in time, immutable forever, was being replaced by the idea that photos were fluid, ever changing liquid things that existed in computers and how every time you changed a pixel, you created a new original. He wrote this 14 years ago. I knew it was coming but until now it was always coming in the future.
The MOMENT, the Holy Grail by which I have made photographs for 35 years, was not as sacrosanct for the kids as it has been for me. Visual honesty for them was compatible with red-eye removal, with selective color balance, with sharpening. I knew the day would come when these computery things would become normal aspects of visual grammar and acceptable as normal photographic techniques by our readers and therefore ethical for us to use. Someday. Not today.
Ethics is in a state of flux. Our entire industry is in a state of flux. We have been given the finest tools ever imaged by Daguerre and his contemporaries and just as we reach the apex in the area of cameras, we can’t cut through the fog to see if there is a future for our profession. Newspapers are closing, laying off, being bought, downsizing, losing circulation, being dominated by bean counters, and we have the greatest cameras ever invented to document it.
When NPPA began, Joe Costa and the founders had a strong sense of right and wrong. The ideal of concerned photojournalism, the passion to pursue honest photographs and serve the reader and to expose what is wrong in society and hopefully make a difference with our photos has always been the basis for our ethics. The specifics have evolved: how much burning and dodging is considered ethical, can you restage a feature photo? We have become stricter in our conduct (mainly because journalism has been prostituting itself so much that we need to be above reproach in order to hang onto our credibility) but through it all we have valued the Moment.
John Ahlhauser, President of NPPA in 1967 and Sprague Award winner in 1977, has an excellent analysis of our ethics over the past 60 years. He says the change is not in ethics but in our perception of ethics. “Since 1948, our purpose has been to communicate the truth.” We modified photos with airbrushes, bleach etc. but these little crutches were only to make the photo clearer, more readable. As reproduction got better, “it gave us the freedom to think more about the Truth.” We became a profession.
We have weathered the digital revolution fairly well, but now we are seeing the beginning of a cultural revolution, Mitchell’s paradigm shift, and just as we feel we are sailing into a massive fog bank as concerns our future as newspapers, we are also sailing into a fog bank of ethics.
The kids will develop ways maintain the integrity of their photographs and to communicate visually, honestly, in a world of liquid, ever changing images. They have to. Our democracy, our very future as a free people, is based on access to accurate information and they have to find ways to provide accurate visual information in this brave new world.
Columbus did not fall off the edge of the world. Hopefully we will find that out world is round too.