‘The Real and the Digital’ – Liz Wells
Does digital photography change how we see photography as truth? Consider both sides of the argument.
In her book, Photography – A Critical Introduction, Liz Wells questions photography’s (digital photography) ‘special ability to show things as they are’, and raises ‘serious doubts about those genres with a particular investment in the real – documentary and photojournalism.’
Image manipulation has been an integral part of photographic practice since photography’s inception. Developments in digital technologies have however rendered photographic manipulation from what were once time-consuming operations, often requiring specialist laboratories, to what is now easily accessible by anyone with a computer or mobile phone. Technological developments have also made it more difficult to detect manipulated images. Terms such as ‘airbrushed‘ and ‘photoshopped‘ have entered the daily vocabulary of the layperson. The daily consumption of photographs has also exploded with the increased popularity of social media and image sharing websites and applications.
The manipulated police mug shot of alleged murderer, O.J. Simpson, which appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in June 1994, rendered the accused, more menacing and intimidating. Time’s treatment of the image was heavily condemned, and is often referenced in debates on issues of image manipulation. Paula Roberts and Jenny Webber, both lecturers at the University of South Australia’s School of Communication and Information Studies, reference a number of instances in which market leading magazines employed image manipulation on their cover. ‘These acts bring into question problems of image authentication not only in respect of photojournalism, but also in the use of photographs as evidence in legal cases, and for any other documentary purpose, such as the compilation of social and cultural histories.’
Roberts and Webber describe the power the newspaper editor has – ‘images may be selected and manipulated without negotiation, and the photographer has little chance of recourse’. They cite Fred Ritchin’s suggestion that photojournalism should now be described as ‘editorial photography’.
Wells refers to our perception of the manipulated image as having a lasting effect, which goes far beyond the basic act of manipulation recognition, ‘but our reception and understanding of the world of signs (semiotics) may have been transformed’.
Similar to my earlier exploration of objectivity in photography, the case surrounding image manipulation rests on the intention of the photographer and editor. Is it their intent to deceive or mislead the reader/viewer?
Photography has always held a position over all other forms of representation as being closer to the truth. Accessibility and saturation have to some degree, muddied the waters. Photography, regardless of it susceptibility to being manipulated, is in my opinion, still, and will for some time, remain the closest medium to the truth.
Wells, L. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction, 4th ed., Routledge.
Roberts, P., Webber, J. (1999) ‘Visual Truth In The Digital Age: Towards A Protocol For Image Ethics’, accepted for Australian Institute of Computer Ethics Conference, July.
Ritchin, F. (1991). ‘Photojournalism in the age of computers’. in C. Squiers, (ed.) The Critical Image: Essays on contemporary photography, London: Bay Press.
Time Magazine Archive (1994) O.J. Simpson cover illustration [image online], available: http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19940627,00.html [accessed 16 December 2014]