Conflict photography considered as bellwether for the dawning understanding of digital imagery as a new medium
Published in “IMAGES IN CONFLICT”, by Hochschule Hannover University of Applied Sciences & Arts, Jonas Verlag, 2018
There is a problem underlying almost every current conversation about visual imagery, which is the dominant use of a misleading vocabulary about “photography” when discussing visual imagery that is created using digital technology. The deceit is not deliberate, but it is so widespread that it might be described as a form of cultural self-deception that perpetuates a comforting belief that everything we understand about photography can be carried forward and simply overlaid onto today’s discussion of lens based, digital imagery. The word “photograph” applied in this context disguises the transformational changes that have taken place almost invisibly while we watched, as the technology of recording light moved from photography made on film to imagery made with sensors. Across nearly two centuries we refined mineral and chemical processes to create ever more accurate, exact and factual records of the light that passed through the camera lens with the technological ambition of achieving less grain, greater acuity and the ever more precise rendering of every photon reflected or projected from the object. In less than a decade as we crossed into a new Millennium from 1995 to 2005 this mechanical and chemical process was replaced by a variety of digital processes that instead use notional samples of that same light to feed an onboard computer with just sufficient light to construct a framework image which is brought to full form using processes of interpolation to fill the gaps[i]. In front of our eyes yet almost invisibly, indexical accuracy has been replaced by the computer’s approximated representation of the world we know.
If we need convincing about how radically the change from analogue to digital really is, consider the nature of film versus the nature of a sensor. Whereas layers of dye or emulsion are placed on top of each other on film to create a continuous rendering of colour that uses every photon coming through the lens to indexically mirror the pattern of light outside, the digital sensor cannot stack pixels and colour is achieved by interpolating information from adjacent pixels. What this actually means is that two thirds of the photons entering through the lens are discarded because the horizontal array of pixels cannot accommodate all the information. Considered further we realize that the image that looks like a photograph is built from only one third of the light information that would be used to expose film. What we are looking at is in fact a computational phenomenon, a fabrication of the computer and not wholly the representational phenomenon that the label “photograph” claims it to be.[ii]
The computational image has been engineered to mimic the look of conventional photography so it’s maybe not surprising that practitioners were not greatly concerned by the almost seamless operational transition from indexical to computational representation. However, photographers were quickly impacted by a number of changes in their workflow, none more powerfully than those working in conflict situations. At first it seemed like a relief to no longer wet-process film in the field, producing negatives to be edited, scanned and transmitted across unreliable data connections, but this new convenience soon manifested as a major disruption to the conventions of field reporting. The commercial pressure of supplying 24-hour digital editions made particular demands for high-impact visual coverage and it soon became apparent that survival as a conflict photographer required not only the physical agility to avoid injury and capture, but increasingly demanded mental and emotional energy to fulfill high-volume production on accelerated timelines. Subtlety of interpretation, researched relevance, investigative inquiry and thoughtful editing no longer held their value as professional attributes, and theoretical commentary on the consequent changes in reportage style focused heavily on this accelerated workflow.
New rules were in formation for everyone in the news production chain and to some it seemed that the digital technology was designed to support new priorities that valued attention-grabbing early exclusives above the factual integrity that was traditionally associated with analogue photography. In 2003 Brian Walski was working for the LA Times, covering the American invasion of Iraq, and under immense pressure to feed the press he combined two near-similar adjacent frames in a field-edit that didn’t distort the factual accuracy of the story but introduced an exaggerated visual impact. The subsequent furore when the edit was discovered demonstrated unequivocal public expectation that the digital image should behave exactly like the analogue photograph and Walski lost his job. That this was the product of a new medium with clearly differentiated characteristics seems to have gone unremarked as the clamour for the continuity of analogue standards persisted, at least in the context of conflict reporting, even as certain new characteristics were selectively embraced (such as speedy production and easy digital distribution). Walski attributed the whole debacle to the pressure on production. [iii]
It should be noted that other categories of digital imagery were not held to the same standards of factual completeness and throughout this transition period portraiture, for example, was commonly expected to have been retouched. Vanity Fair during the same period spent as much on retouching the images in each issue as most news magazines’ entire photo budget because readers expected to see celebrities in idealised “perfection” without skin blemishes, stray hairs, damaged nails or other distracting realities. Sports photographers could arguably be said to work under equivalent pressure to deliver rapid-deadline dramatic imagery but the pattern of high-speed production during Saturday games for Sunday publication was already well established and was supported by well-oiled infrastructure. Manipulations, when they were identified (often to make a ball visible in the frame), were greeted mainly with irritated exclamations and rarely if ever with the same condemnation that was applied to conflict coverage[iv].
The concern about accelerated workflows was soon overtaken by a deeper wound to the commercial viability of news photography as the business model of online publishing fell apart under pressure from the shifting patterns of Internet advertising, exacerbated by the proliferation of digitally distributed information from multiple sources including first responders equipped with Smartphones.
The changed workflows and the evolving cultural role of the photographic image have been acknowledged and were widely discussed at the time, but the profound ontological shift that describes the new digital process is less frequently referenced. In the main people have assumed ontological continuity consistent with the visual continuity of the computational image whose market-driven appearance so closely mimics the indexical, analogue output. Popular culture has yet to even recognize the transition from indexical representation, and general discussion of vernacular imagery made by digital processes assumes continuity of the factual foundations, albeit with increasingly elaborate overlays of digital “enhancements” designed to compensate for increasingly simplified operational procedures. The Kodak marketing slogan, “You push the button, we do the rest” was first used in 1888 but could have been written specifically to describe the modern “automatic” settings that “sharpen” the digital file, apply colour “corrections”, “compensate” exposure, etc. All these expressions suggest that the technology is driving an ever-closer adherence to an assumed absolute factual accuracy. Much theoretical analysis finds it easier to maintain these assumptions than to consider the implications of the tectonic change that threaten to undermine our thinking about the modern “photographic” image.
But if we consider the value placed on visual imagery as a medium of “truthful” expression we must open the door to a weighty discussion about the nature of truth as we replace our confidence in factual records with a willing engagement with interpretive processes. One truth that is stubbornly buried in the discourse is that until we recognize the distinction between indexical and computational imagery, the vocabulary of “photography” remains deceptive when applied to digital processes.
One particularly significant analysis that hit head-on the ontological difference between analogue and digital imagery was “The Integrity Of the Image[v]” written by David Campbell for the World Press Photo Foundation[vi]. This thorough study systematically examined the technical differences between the analogue and computational image. Subtitled, “Current Practices and accepted standards relating to the manipulation of still images in photojournalism and documentary photography,” the report offers an exceptional overview that uniquely blends research of the scientific processes, production workflows and cultural expectations of the digital image in the context of best-practice contemporary news coverage. But written as a practical guide for media professionals engaged in daily production (and published in the context of a competition that assesses the value and veracity of imagery exclusively in this context) Campbell’s analysis has received scant critical attention from theorists observing the process.
By avoiding deeper discussion of the profound shift from analogue to digital process, two momentous issues now sit in the room like the proverbial elephants, unavoidable and blocking our vision but which we have chosen to ignore. Firstly we face a profound failure to understand what we’re looking at, and secondly, maybe more importantly, we are failing to imagine the amazing new opportunities offered by the emergent qualities of the new medium now in our hands.
It’s a situation that has existed before when old technologies have given way to new. For example in the mid 19th Century when the photographic medium was first developed a similar crisis of comprehension occurred when considering the phenomenon of recorded light, at least in English-speaking territories. The term “photograph” was not commonly used until the mid 1850’s, nearly two decades after Daguerre, Fox-Talbot and their peers created their first miraculous images. Up until that point the process was commonly described as “photogenic drawing” and it’s easy to understand why: here was an image fixed and etched onto glass or paper which must therefore be a form of drawing, and it’s made with light so it’s a photogenic drawing. The title of Fox-Talbot’s book “The Pencil Of Nature” published in chapters 1844~1846 emphasized the conceptual reliance on preexisting technologies when thinking about the new medium. It eventually became necessary to create new vocabulary to reflect the conceptual developments that followed the technological developments and “photography” arrived in the world.
Modern consternation about the work of early documentarists such as Roger Fenton and Alexander Gardner demonstrates the chasm of comprehension that separates the old and the new media. When critiquing Fenton’s 1855 constructed representations of conflict for which he relocated Crimean cannonballs and Gardner’s artfully balanced corpses, posed to form more pleasing compositions during the American Civil War, we apply 170 years experience of documentary photography together with all the associated protocols that have been developed specifically for this form of representation. But consider instead a conceptual paradigm that interprets their imagery as a form of drawing and these modern arguments begin to look ridiculous, or at the very least anachronistic. It is hard to imagine the extraordinary forensic attention that has been applied to Fenton and Gardner’s imagery of the Crimean and American Civil Wars being applied to Goya’s “Disasters of War”. Goya’s etchings preceded Fenton’s work by only 35 years yet they are unsullied by accusations of fictionalized representation because they are evidently bona fide hand drawings and the profound truths revealed are interpreted as such. But what if Fenton and Gardner’s images were also considered a form of drawing but made with a startling new technology that effectively substituted one form of pencil with another (as Fox-Talbot clearly believed)? Critics of Fenton and Gardner may have failed to understand their failure to understand the ontological difference between hand drawing and “photogenic drawing”. It is clear to us with the benefit of hindsight that new rules should be applied when considering the photogenic image as an indexical form of documentation. But while Fenton and Gardner were enthusiasts for the new technology they were actually applying valid protocols that had been extended from preceding documentary processes.
In 2018 we are in just such a moment now. Nearly every image made in the last decade has been created, distributed and consumed in an utterly new medium for which we have no name, but for which we extend the protocols previously applied to photography. We are in the early 21st Century, sharpening our 20th Century “pencils” as we attempt continuity with long established, familiar standards. The disjuncture is considerably more significant than the introduction of “smart pencils” like PhotoShop and other softwares that facilitate manipulation of the image post exposure. The very substrate of the original digital file is in effect a different medium with attributes that are profoundly different from the attributes of the photograph. But because the appearance so seductively mimics the appearance of the photograph we are almost inevitaby seduced into talking of it using the now-outdated but not-yet-replaced vocabulary of photography. The commercial rationale for camera manufacturers to perpetrate this seduction is clear and will continue as long as the market demands images that mimic the appearance of photographs. The rationale for those of us who seek to understand imagery is less clear and it’s hard to understand why, if our intent is truly to understand, we would perpetuate the expectations of a now defunct medium (or at best an artisanal medium) in this new environment.
Part of the explanation for this anachronous use of language is the difficulty of describing phenomena for which there are no culturally consistent words. I struggle to find words that adequately describe the phenomena of digital image making, let alone to describe the transformative consequences of Internet distribution together with the integrated consumption of images that we as mobile-phone cyborgs now experience. I sometimes feel as though I’m playing charades, that parlour game in which players must guess the intended vocabulary of a speaker who is bound to remain mute and uses only gestures to communicate. I find myself constantly pointing at parallel phenomena to indicate that what I’m trying to describe: “It looks like this”, “sounds like that” or “feels a bit like something else,” all of which are familiar but inaccurate, being merely gestural signifiers for phenomena that I’m trying to describe.
It’s not an efficient way to advance culture and it’s becoming clear that the problem is deeper than simply struggling to name the parts. It’s becoming necessary to define a new way of thinking about imagery but it’s laborious and inefficient to communicate new conceptual thinking without appropriate language. However, there is a cultural shortcut, a sort of paradigmatic “wormhole” through which to slip into an alternate universe where there is already a new way of thinking about imagery. It’s not a way of thinking that is understood by those of us trapped in the language and history of photography but is lived instead by app developers, programmers, marketing technicians, political campaigners, security forces and countless others who are already immersed in the new thinking about imagery without the hindrance of historical references to photographic processes.
This other constituency comprises all the new crafts whose practitioners have no knowledge and even less interest in the lessons learned during photography’s history. These are the business developers and technologists of all kinds who see market opportunities in the huge and growing consumer culture of conversational image-makers who are making imagery on mobile phones for the exchange of information, ideas and social messaging. The population of private citizens around the world, very few of whom have deep knowledge of traditional photography production are happy to work with Smartphones that perform effortless reworking of their images. Snapchat’s sky filters substitute starry skies and golden sunsets for any sky in any image; China’s young adult population is driving the massive expansion of new businesses that offer automatic “beautification” whereby preset algorithms enlarge the eyes and smooth the skin texture of every face without even the need for the conscious application of a filter. And there are thousands upon thousands of other digital processes that integrate imagery into the consumer experience in ways that transcend the merely photographic.
Less visible but no less influential are the technologists focused on problem-solving beyond the consumer market; these are the people devising ever more complex applications for facial recognition technologies that can integrate people’s visual identity into business and political processes; who are experimenting with the trace left by the accelerometer in every mobile phone image that identifies the individual hand of the user whose pattern of movement is as distinctive as a fingerprint[vii]; these are the people who are integrating all available sensors to create and to interpret the myriad of data that are now integral to the digital image, data that can identify the user, their location, economic potential and behavioural expectations. All this from an image! As we begin to learn about these extraordinary attributes of the digital image it becomes ever more evident that this is not photography as we have known it. “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” said Judy Garland as a perfectly ordinary day mysteriously became an adventure in weirdness, and the same sense of wonder and confusion besets everyone who ventures from historical awareness to the contemporary realities of modern imagery.
For those who are unencumbered by the sucking mud of history dragging at their boots, the ontological shift from analogue to digital has unleashed an intuitive transformation in the cultural function of the image. Ironically, the innocent (uneducated) vernacular use of imagery is now defining its social meaning. As dramatically as technology has changed the nature of the visual image, so the billions of images now generated daily by people all around the world have changed the place of the image in daily life. People still make images of special occasions that are kept as domestic archives but by far and away the majority application of imagery is not to support memory but to engage in current conversation. The medium once considered precious enough to store and index every photograph is now utterly disposable. Just as in spoken conversation words come and go without leaving verbatim memory of what was said, so photographs disappear almost as soon as they’re seen, often to be forgotten. But as with words, although the details are not remembered, the meaning and significance stay and arguably accrete to create a deeper form of knowledge than the more static photography of days gone by. Everywhere we look in technology and in culture the visual image is shifting and shuffling into its new paradigm.
Many of these new digital practitioners are engaged in legitimate processes of enhanced communication but more worrying is the unscrupulous use of imagery in more sinister ways. I have talked elsewhere about the transformation of the image from an object of memory that represents a past experience to the image as the actual, current experience[viii]. This is often the innocent representation of a birthday cake, which doesn’t exist primarily as a nutritional item to be eaten but as an image to be visually consumed by remote friends and acquaintances. But this new experiential quality was most powerfully demonstrated by ISIS with the video beheading of James Foley in August 2014. The image of this killing was not a representation of war; the video itself was the actual prosecution of war. By a single, video stroke, ISIS changed the international policy of Europe and North America and set a new parameter for modern conflict.
A grim catalogue of attacks that are targeted specifically at news photographers in conflict zones offers a measure of how vital the image is in contemporary war. There is an accelerating trend of kidnappings and killings of photographers that is designed to intimidate and disrupt independent coverage, because the protagonists have increasing access to high-quality production equipment and easy Internet distribution and they are intent on using imagery in controlled strategies to get advantage over their enemies.
Other dangers await as we learn this new “language” of digital imagery. There are many agents of visual communication who will actively seek to misinform and deceive by their use of imagery. During this transitional period while we are struggling to properly understand the nature of the new digital medium and before society has agreed the protocols by which we interpret digital imagery there is vast opportunity for mischief. This is a temporary phase that will pass as we establish new rules of engagement with the medium that is currently bizarre and confusing. Consider for example how the black and white photograph came to occupy its position as a trusted form of truthful communication. The black and white image is of course utterly fantastical and does not represent the world as any of us actually perceive it; and yet through consistent exposure we learned to use it and to believe it, to the extent that for several decades the black and white photograph was the de facto medium of visual truth as represented on the pages and TV screens of every major news operation. So it will be with the new emergent digital media.
The speed with which new protocols are developing is evidenced by two magazine covers, the first in 2005 (Newsweek)[ix] and the second appearing four years later in 2009 (Time)[x]. In March 2005 the celebrity broadcaster Martha Stewart was due to be released from prison having served time for insider trading. In anticipation of her release, Newsweek created an image of Martha apparently jumping out from behind a theatrical curtain, which they created by blending a studio image of a model with a file picture of Stewart’s face. In spite of the clearly displayed label identifying the image as a “photo illustration” there was widespread and furious public reaction to the extent that Newsweek published an apology[xi]. Only four years later Time magazine ran a similarly constructed photo illustration of the newly elected President Obama dressed as a medic, illustrating a feature about his plans for healthcare reform. I scoured the media online and in print to monitor the reaction and I found not a single comment. A new protocol was born which after an uncomfortable birth was easily accepted by a public now familiar with the concept of photo illustration.
There is resistance of course, not only as an alarmed response to such drastic change and consequent possibilities of ethical and aesthetic abuse, but also because there is so much good in the old processes why would we abandon them? It’s true that if the modern process successfully mimics the old, there’s good reason to continue this practice because good has been achieved and will be achieved again by so doing. But to retain the use of the old medium without a deep understanding of the new would be a fatal mistake for two reasons. Firstly, the culture within which we live and with which we seek to engage is rapidly developing different expectations of imagery. Not only different expectations, but communities are speaking a different language that no longer comprehends the relevance of a simple two-dimensional rectangle of pixels, isolated in time and space, static and inert, cut off from the world. Secondly we deprive ourselves of the powerful tools that can work in the service of visual narrative and documentary record that extraordinary potential for richer deeper communication; it will become a world in which the image is not merely a depiction of reality, using all available attributes to enrich the story, but in which the image file can be an active participant in artistic and journalistic processes. Imagine the image that identifies malnutrition before it’s visible to the eye, connects information and resources that can tackle the condition, can seek and integrate others engaged in similar activities. It’s a simplistic example but it clearly illustrates how the craft of framing an image can become a highly enriched process of communication and action. This is why we must move from photography to this new world that’s so fresh we can’t even name the parts.
Integral to this transition is a change in role for those who currently consider themselves image professionals, whether that be as photographer, curator, technician or teacher. “We” might have considered ourselves to be leaders in the world of visual representation, tastemakers whose leading practitioners have defined the context within which all other imagery is evaluated. But there is now an absolute inversion taking place whereby vernacular activity defines the parameters of successful imagery, not only by the sheer force of volume but also by innovation and repurposing, experimentation and demonstration beyond the capacity of any individual or even institution. It’s a dynamic environment that for the aware and the adventurous is a place of growth and expansion but for the uncertain and unaware can be a place of fear and tremendous insecurity.
The representation of conflict has developed its own aesthetic within the overall photographic canon, revealing the particularly sensitive position of conflict both within photography and as it is understood by society. In broad strokes the aesthetic could be described as an anti-aesthetic that is intended to convey the brutal realities of conflict with rugged, unadorned honesty: the images are made on location without rehearsal with minimal intervention from the photographer either in staging the events or in post-production of the resulting images. Even simple cropping is viewed with suspicion although deformations caused by camera movement in low light, and other similar variations from the human visual process are accepted as evidence of authenticity. It is commonly argued that such serious subjects should not be subjected to the whimsy of creative interpretation and the aestheticisation of violence is viewed with disdain. (This orthodoxy has been challenged by artists such as Luc Delahaye, Simon Norfolk and others, some of who even reconstruct events as an extension of the documentary form. James Nachtwey’s highly polished reportage remains in continual contention.) This belief in the crude authenticity of imagery made by observation and without intervention has always been questionable because the very act of putting a frame around a subject is by definition an aesthetic process. More to the point, if a photographer wants to seduce viewers into looking at unwelcome sights they must at the very least create a harmonious frame that combines form and colour in ways that don’t repel the viewer or require undue effort to interpret. Why risk one’s life to make an image that no-one wants to look at? It should also be recognised that although somehow distinguished from other documentary forms, conflict imagery is received into a common cultural soup of advertising, commercial, fashion, art, informational and documentary imagery and is perceived by the viewer to be compliant with the same generally accepted principles of representation. As a consequence, images of conflict exist in a state of tension that accepts the expressive potential of photography while denying the intervention of the photographer. It’s an uncomfortable position that can only become even less comfortable as digital processes become integral to the image, putting conflict imagery in a position of extreme sensitivity during this transition from analogue to digital.
As an example of how non-photographic elements have started to play a part in the representation of conflict consider GPS tagging (the embedding of location data into the structure of the image file). This probably has little consequence for the domestic viewer who is unlikely to be even aware of its presence, but is of very high significance to the protagonists in the field. Removing this data requires extreme diligence by the photographer and rarely happens but in some circumstances transmitting unencrypted data could have cataclysmic consequences that make the rules of non-manipulation utterly foolish. But does manipulating the image file to remove GPS data comprise a form of deceit akin to removing visual artifacts and does it even make sense to consider the manipulation of metadata as a form of distortion even though the metadata is intrinsic to the structure of the digital file? Or consider facial recognition: while it might be possible to disguise the location there is absolutely no off-button for facial recognition and the digital image occupies a new and extraordinary place in the spectrum “truth” and “reality” that transcends conventional analogue representation. The image is now a powerful active agent in the process of knowledge formation, independently of the author’s visual intent and to argue the innocence of the image as an honest representation of unadorned reality is disingenuous when people’s lives are put at risk. This is to consider only two of the more familiar non-photographic attributes that are now integral to the digital image and it is be hoped that we learn to understand the modern image in very different terms before too much damage is done. To simply proceed as though nothing has changed in the transition from analogue to digital is irresponsible.
Rather than attempting to maintain the disguise of the digital image as just another form of photograph we should release our sentimental attachment to the photograph as a tool of forensic visual investigation and accept the new role of imagery as a highly active instrument of participation rather than an inert product of observation. It is impossible to predict how this might evolve in years to come but the first step we can take now is to recognise that the ontological qualities of the digital image are not just a superficial variant of photography. This will require us to relinquish many core beliefs in the characteristics of the photographic image in order to let the new medium grow. This is an exact parallel with the 18th Century realisation that the photogenic image was not a form of drawing, which allowed larger thinking and the evolution of all the dynamic qualities we now appreciate in the photograph. Ironically the imaginative shift that is required of us in the 21st Century is the exact inverse of what was required of the 18th Century: where they had to rethink their ideas of interpretive representation in light of the new indexical qualities of the photograph, we must loosen our expectations of indexical rigour and embrace the opportunities offered by the many tools of arbitrary measurement and expression. We are at a point where the image is developing new powers to describe not what we see, but to show what we know. The prospect is horrific to those who believe that only facts can be trusted to tell truths, but to anyone who has studied the growth of written journalism from Martha Gellhorn onwards the power of a trusted intelligence to use information as only a foundation upon which we can build knowledge, the opportunity is enormous.
This evolution from observation to understanding should also be welcomed as a long overdue relief to the representational tedium that has become the standard of conflict photography. Just about every visual aspect of mechanised conflict had been photographically documented by 1918. At that time the information was transformative and held a truthful light to the lie of the “Great War” as a noble and valorous enterprise. Yet decade after decade we have seen uniformed men with guns and more uniformed men with guns and still more uniformed men with guns, and what exactly have we learned about conflict that we hadn’t previously understood? (Images of Hiroshima being a ghastly exception to this repetitious parade of hardware and violence, along with significant evidential revelations from Vietnam[xii], Bosnia[xiii] and elsewhere). Tim Hetherington expressed his frustration with the standard protocols of conflict photography with a typically insightful metaphor that informed his deeper exploration: “The truth is that the war machine is the software as much as the hardware. The software runs it and the software is young men. … I was a young man once. … I get it, I get the operating system. I am the operating system.”[xiv]
Hetherington died in 2011, leaving a tantalising glimpse of how documentary could be reimagined using visual attributes that were previously unavailable to photographers. His 19-minute film Diary[xv], edited by video artist Magali Charrier was described by some as “experimental” but might be better understood as a manifesto: it is a non linear, non objective yet profoundly and disturbingly honest challenge to the orthodoxies of conflict reporting. Less well known are the storyboards that Hetherington was developing at the time of his death, in collaboration with filmmaker Topaz Adizes. In 2010, perched on a barstool in Brooklyn, Hetherington excitedly laid out his plan to return to Afghanistan to make a new form of documentary. With the Oscars not yet called for his documentary Restrepo[xvi] he had moved on and was creating a new visual strategy that would represent the true other-worldliness of the Afghan conflict using the visual tropes of science fiction. Entirely documentary content would be created using the lenses, filters, audio techniques and other digital techniques to reach a level of engagement not available with purely analogue capture. His belief was that such a documentary would have the power to not only deliver a deeper understanding of the realities but to reach a wider audience that wouldn’t otherwise take an interest in the urgent yet relentless matter of American intervention in Afghanistan. We will never know if Hetherington was right but we can learn from his insights and at least give permission to others to develop similarly audacious assaults on the traditions of the photographic image, if only we could understand the limitations of those traditions in this new and expanded universe of digital imagery.
The risks are as great as the opportunities and by working fast to understand the new intricacies of visual imagery in culture we can identify the greatest risks and maybe even work to preempt and forestall them. There is an urgent need to engage with new visual practices and to name and explain them in the shortest possible order, because the period of transition from one regime to the next is when the greatest damage can occur. Sometimes innocently and sometimes maliciously, the old standards can be applied inappropriately causing an automatic metamorphosis of information into misinformation and disinformation. By seeing a photograph but interpreting it as a drawing we can severely undermine the credibility of truth, however that is defined by each age.
This is a moment of great vulnerability because the old recognised standards of good practice / bad practice become decreasingly relevant and the new standards are not yet established. Misunderstandings, misrepresentations and raw mendacity can abound because they’re not identified and even if identified we lack the cognitive practice of resolving dissonance between what is seen and what is understood, a process that seems so easy and automatic.
The worst fear is that truth itself becomes the price paid for technological advancement. But as wiser voices have said (in paraphrase), the technology will come but what we make of it will always be a choice[xvii]. To be absent from the process and the attendant discussions is to abrogate responsibility and cannot be an acceptable response. At the very least we must find a vocabulary that facilitates understanding of the processes around us, and “photography” should not be part of it. The wisdom we have gained through the experience of photography must not be lost entirely but neither should it be preserved intact; we should take it and mould it, adapt and change it to support the new media. The unabated presence of armed conflict combined with the unmediated distribution of digital imagery for the purpose of evidence and as propaganda brings urgency to the discussion. Understanding the true nature of this new medium is truly a matter of life and death.
[i] “Interpolate” defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as
- “to alter or corrupt (something, such as a text) by inserting new or foreign matter”
- “to estimate values of (data or a function) between two known values”
Merriam Webster notes that the word is derived from the Latin interpolare which is variously translated as “to refurbish,” “to alter,” and “to falsify”.
[ii] Sean McHugh of Cambridge Colour offers a full technical explanation of the digital process: http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/camera-sensors.htm (Accessed 12. June 2018).
[iii] Kenneth Irby described the events in full for Poynter, April 2nd 2003 and included Walske’s agonised confession, Kenneth Irby: ‘L.A. Times Photographer Fired Over Altered Image’, in: poynter.org, 02. April 2003, https://www.poynter.org/news/la-times-photographer-fired-over-altered-image (Accessed 12. June 2018)
[iv] For example, Ken Irby writing in Poynter Online January 2, 2003 invited a number of editorial magazine professionals to comment on Sports Illustrated cover featuring John W McDonough’s image of a clash in Superbowl XXXV for which the magazine editors had chosen to extend the background for a full bleed, Sports Illustrated February 5 2001, https://www.si.com/nfl/photo/2016/02/09/sis-super-bowl-covers#17
The commentators ranged from accepting this as common practice through to noting a distinction between magazine covers and news coverage, but no outrage was expressed about the use of such techniques in sports coverage. This commentary preceded the Walksi excoriation for his manipulated news image by only three months.
[v] David Campbell “The Integrity Of The Image”, ed. by World Press Photo Academy, Amsterdam 2014, https://www.worldpressphoto.org/sites/default/files/upload/Integrity%20of%20the%20Image_2014%20Campbell%20report.pdf (Accessed 12 June 2018)
[vi] The World Press Photo Foundation was founded in the Netherlands in 1955 to celebrate the quality of newspaper photography as selected by a jury of press professionals. The competition has run every year since and has come to be recognised as single most significant review of photography made for press purposes, selected by annual competition that attracts up to 100,000 images entered for assessment with winning pictures exhibited in over 100 venues around the world and as a printed catalogue. https://www.worldpressphoto.org/about/mission. The rules forbid digital manipulation that could be perceived as falsifying the representation, as defined by a relatively stable set of parameters that reflect current standard practices in the news industry.
[viii] see interview with the author: Pete Brook: ‘Photographs Are No Longer Things, They’re Experiences’ in: Wired Magazine, 15 November 2011, www.wired.com/rawfile/2012/11/stephen-mayes-vii-photography/ (Accessed 12 June 2018)
[ix] Newsweek magazine, March 1, 2005
[x] Time magazine, August 10, 2009
[xi] Newsweek magazine, March 8, 2005
[xii] Ronald L Haeberle’s dispassionate images of civilian corpses in My Lai, March 16th 1968
[xiii] Ron Haviv’s images of exuberant soldiers killing and kicking Bosnian Muslim civilians in Bijeljina, March 31st 1992
[xiv] “Theatre of War”, 2011, extended discussion with Tim Hetherington and Stephen Mayes about war, masculinity and eroticism, https://www.david-campbell.org/wp-content/documents/The_Theatre_of_War.pdf
[xvi] Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger: Restrepo, 01:33:00, 2010. http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/independent/restrepo/
[xvii] Kevin Kelly: What Technology Wants, New York 2010.