Once accepted (however naively) as a medium of truth and record, photography has become shrouded in a cloak of presumed deceit. With image manipulation now ubiquitous, it’s a shroud the medium seems unlikely to shake off any time soon. Yet curiously, it is also fully open-handed deception, one which we have not only accepted but actively embraced. Fifty eight million photographs are posted daily to the image sharing website Instagram, where one of the main selling points is the facility it offers for users to “apply filters” to improve their photographs. One person’s enhanced is another person’s faked, but in a social media environment we don’t seem to care. Those born post-Google (they are turning 17 now) certainly don’t. To that generation, and many older than them, the message is not only more important than the medium but often more significant than the provenance or veracity of the image through which it is conveyed. Were the gay Irish rainbows Photoshopped? Mostly not, I would guess. Were they all captured on that day? It seems unlikely, but what’s a little caption-fudging between friends, right?
The issue becomes more complicated when lines blur not just between reality and prettier versions of it, but between reality and reportage. Retouching, cropping and filtering are standard photographic tools, but now, the practice of presenting images disingenuously (mis-captioned or out of context) is enjoying a slow creep. When every image has been altered and any image may be telling a lie, how do we know when to trust what we see? There’s been a discernible shift in our relationship with photography and those rainbows are part of it.
In April 2015, Chief Official White House photographer Pete Souza took a shot of US President Obama about to board Air Force One at the airport in Kingston, Jamaica. Obama was waving goodbye at the top of the steps; Souza angled his shot so it appeared as though a rainbow was emerging from the President’s right shoulder and travelling through the palm of his hand, like a man with a meteorological superpower. Before anyone could cry “image manipulation!” Souza wrote a detailed account of how he got the shot and posted it online. He logged his movements and thought-processes and illustrated the account with more photographs, ostensibly to show how he captured the image, in reality to authenticate it. Why? Because this is the environment in which producers of photographic imagery operate now. As a professional photographer, Souza was establishing a backstory, without which many simply wouldn’t have believed in his photograph.
Such suspicion is not unjustified. Questions about the veracity of images cross professions and disciplines. In 2009, a number of science journals announced their intention to crack down on image manipulation in submitted research. US based Nature reported on “a culture within universities that it is ok to fiddle with images.” The journal’s executive editor Linda Miller pinpointed the problem: “people don’t understand the line between beautification of an image and fraud.”
But even when it comes to science, the issue is not clear-cut. All of the most awe-inspiring images of space captured by the Hubble Space Telescope for example, have had colour added for dramatic and aesthetic effect. It’s not a secret. The official Hubble website contains before and after pictures, along with the proviso that the colours “aren’t always what we’d see if we were able to visit the imaged objects in a spacecraft.” Hubble records only black and white exposures. Whose truth do these enhanced images represent?Since 1997, the Wellcome Image Awards have highlighted remarkable medical images. They are frequently reported on as science images that border on art. One of this year’s winning images, by the neuroscientist Albert Cardona, shows part of the central nervous system of a fruit fly, massively magnified and digitally colour-coded to reveal neurones and synapses. It doesn’t look like this in real life; but with selective addition of colour, the image resembles a Jackson Pollock-style painting.
The lesson seems to be manipulate away, but come clean when you’ve done it. Earlier this year, the World Press Photo (WPP) Awards disqualified twenty of the ninety-two entries in the final round of the competition after judges compared submitted photographs with the original, untouched camera files. The images were too different. But after the winners were announced, another problem arose. The organisation withdrew its first place prize to Italian photographer Giovanni Troilo in the Contemporary Issues story category when questions were raised about the captioning of his photographs. His photo story La Ville Noire is set in the Belgian city of Charleroi. One of the shots was taken in Brussels, 30 miles away; others were found to have been staged or directed by the photographer in some way.
This issue was flagged by Bruno Stevens, a Belgian photojournalist and former WPP prize winner, who felt Troilo’s entry blurred the boundaries between fiction and journalism in a manner that made them unsuitable for a press photography competition. On his own Facebook page Stevens wrote “While his [Troilo’s] working methods are perfectly all right in commercial or Fine Art circles, they are not remotely adequate for journalistic work.” Trolio described the error as “involuntary” and is set to exhibit the work at a photography festival in July.
In an environment where we all have instant access to remarkable photographs online, in an environment where we might even manage to produce one ourselves, it is not enough for a press photographer to just tell the story; the image must stand out. Under this kind of pressure to produce unmatchable images, it’s no surprise photographers themselves don’t seem to know where the lines start to blur between framing reality and staging or manipulating it.
We’ve always known that pointing the camera in one direction instead of another amounts to choosing one slant on the story over another, that context is everything, that cropping is a tool used to produce the best shot. Do we cry misrepresentation or manipulation, or do we simply regard this as part of good photography? Essentially we don’t want to be tricked. For photographers who regard themselves as artists, specific facts matter less than whether the image tells a story the essence of which is “true”. But navigating through photographic imagery in the twenty-first century has become a minefield for those concerned with questions of truth. Problems with verification have led to new business-models in which image experts work with traditional media to identify reliable photographic content for the purposes of journalism.
Faced with an over-abundance of visual stimulation, the majority of it lens- or photography-based, only the most eye-catching images will stand out. Image-makers are simply rising to that challenge. But humans adapt quickly and audiences are evolving to be instinctively suspicious. A photograph of Salvador Dali popped up on Twitter recently. It shows the world’s most famous surrealist artist jumping, while painting and having a bucket of water and three wet cats thrown at him. To a twenty-first century eye it looks like post-production trickery; some of it still might be, but the image does have a documented backstory. It was taken by Magnum photographer Philippe Halsman for his Jump series in 1948. Apparently it took him twenty-eight tries to get it. The poor cats.
If feels a lot like photography is king right now; the phones in our pockets and the culture of online image sharing have combined to put it on its throne. If suspicion reigns too, image makers have learnt to cope with it as a matter of course. In March of last year, a film student at Kinsale College of Further Education posted online a series of remarkable images of a rook flying past the sun during the solar eclipse. Some cried “fake”, but Roger Brady, the student behind the lens, was able to explain how he made them. They are stills from a HD video camera, set to maximum zoom. Brady only spotted the bird when he began editing his footage. In other words, the “photographs” were a wonderful fluke, but true. In twenty-first century image-making terms that amounts to pure gold.
A version of this article was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland Culture Section o 21 June 2015.