‘Manipulate’: to manage, influence, by unfair means or with cunning (Chambers Handy Dictionary).
Mog is trying to decide where he stands on the issue of picture manipulation, in the light of the furore surrounding the disqualification of Stepan Rudik by World Press Photo. At first sight, this offence does not seem so grave, the removal of an irritating detail that hardly affects the meaning of the photograph (it’s not as if the pyramids had been moved by National Geographic). The understandable fear of the hardliners, the photographic Taliban, is that such an act is intended to deceive and, if permitted or sanctioned, will open the floodgates to a veritable orgy of Photoshop indulgence and none of us will know where we stand anymore. In other words, what the camera sees is pure and pristine and must remain so.
Mog’s own photographs often tend to have a finger or two blurring into the frame and he suspects that many photojournalists might have to raise their hands if asked, “Have you ever tidied up a picture to make it more visually satisfactory?” The fact is, many annoyingly distracting details can creep into the situation without the photographer being necessarily aware of them at the time of pushing the shutter. Why, even Henri Cartier-Bresson cropped his celebrated Parisian image of a man leaping over a puddle to remove part of a blurred railing at one side of the frame. The dilemma for the author of the image then becomes, “Do I live with the imperfections or make corrections if they do not materially change the meaning?”
It is a truism that the very act of framing a photograph is something of an artificial process; a fraction to the right, left, up or down and the result can be a very different image with a very different meaning. The debate is as much about post-production – as we know, digital technology has made it so much easier to alter a picture now, instead of having to spending hours or weeks in the darkroom. Rudik’s probable sins in this case were not to have noticed the offending shoe until he magnified a very small part of the original frame and not to have read the strict rules of World Press Photo.
© Stepan Rudik. Rudik’s World Press Photo Third Place Sports Feature Story award was disqualified on grounds of manipulation: “The rule reads: “The content of the image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to the currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed.” In the opinion of the jury, the photographer ventured beyond the boundary of what is acceptable practice. Consequently, this judgment left World Press Photo no choice but to disqualify Rudik.” (from the World Press Photo website)
A further question to consider is whether this visual microminiaturisation by itself constitutes a form of creative dishonesty. Rudik turned what was for Mog a rather bland colour original into a graphically intense black-and-white detail. If Rudik went into this project without a clear idea of what kind of image he was trying to take, and with no real control over his aims and intentions, what does this say about his approach as a photojournalist? Digital reframing and retouching offers temptingly easy indulgence in retrospective construction of meaning.
© Stepan Rudik. This is the original image from which the image above was produced. Note the foot visible between the thumb and the forefinger of the bandaged hand. (via PetaPixel)
What if we widen the discussion to suggest that ‘manipulation’ can mean not just changing elements within an image but setting out deliberately to confuse the viewers’ perception of a situation or an event? The old pre-digital world is full of celebrated examples, for instance:
• W. Eugene Smith is widely admired and rightly considered to be one of the great American photographers yet, in his Spanish Village story for Life Magazine, not only did he recreate scenes after the event but in the case of the renowned wake picture, he also retouched the eyes of two of the grieving women because the were looking straight at him. Does this knowledge alter our response to this story? Does it make these images into photo-illustration rather than reportage?
The Wake by W. Eugene Smith, 1951. “Gene’s solution was simple, effective, and in retrospect, revealing. In the negative, the dead man’s wife is looking almost directly at the photographer, as is her daughter. In the final print, Gene printed their eyes almost totally black then with a fine-tipped brush applied bleach to create new whites. The result was to redirect the pupils of the two women’s eyes downward and, in the mother’s case, sharply to the side.” – from Jim Hughes, Shadow and Substance (1989)
• What about Dorothea Lange’s famous Migrant Mother? Lange, a successful portrait photographer, deliberately framed tightly around the woman, Flora Thompson, and two of her daughters (the baby was on her lap). Why? Because she did not want to show the several other children around the mother in case the American public refused to feel sympathetic to her plight and started to ask why she didn’t use birth control. Lange was, after all, carrying out propaganda for the FSA. (Incidentally, an intrusive thumb was removed from Lange’s photograph prior to publication so one of the most famous images in the history of photography would fail the veracity test today.)
“Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936,” or “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange, 1936. “There was the New Deal and the New Deal had purpose. In January, 1935, the Rural Rehabilitation Division of the California State Emergency Relief Administration asked me, as field director, to conduct research to recommend a suitable program… I explained that I wanted to bring from the field itself visual evidence of the nature of the problem to accompany my textual reports made to those unable to go into the field but responsible for the decision.” – Paul Taylor, “Migrant Mother, 1936”, The American West, May, 1970.
• The raising of the US flag at Iwo Jima photographed by Joe Rosenthal is a well-known re-enactment. Was the intention to deceive here materially different because it was in wartime? Both Eugene Smith and Rosenthal might have argued that they were not attempting to tell ‘the truth’ but were being ‘truthful’ to an event, except in Rosenthal’s case he hadn’t even been present at the original flag raising. These set-ups may not undermine the pristine nature of the content ‘within the frame’ but don’t they influence the way the audience see the world-as-photographed? When asked about the photo many years later, Rosenthal said, “I took the picture, the Marines took Iwo Jima” – and the public were left with a phoney. Rosenthal won the Pullitzer Prize for this image.
While we are at it, is the widespread and corrosive tendency within the contemporary UK press to set up or arrange photographs just another form of manipulation? Photographers may protest that they are forced into this realm of artificiality because of lack of time and access but isn’t it just another form of deceit when the general reader is persuaded to think this is what “good” press photography is all about?
Reverting to Rudik’s picture, a highly professional jury, it would seem, did not suspect the entry at the time of their deliberations since they awarded him a prize. The frustrated sleuth lurking within Mog’s psyche asks, who then was it that did begin to doubt the photograph, who was the person with the microscope? How long did it take for the penny to drop? How many other suspicious images were investigated? In this age of transparency, how will we ever know the real extent of digital interference? I imagine that in future, World Press will have to employ many more of those charming and industrious interns to check RAW-files against submitted pictures.
Whatever view one may have of Rudik’s misdemeanour, the effect of this episode will undoubtedly be to destabilise further our trust in press photography. We have all become more cynical about what we see in photographs nowadays, especially in the professional arena. Can we call anything ‘authentic’ anymore? Will everything end up as manipulated photo-illustration? Dear reader, Mog is a state of turmoil. Please come to his aid.