Getting Us Closer To The Truth In Photography

Harry Fisch organizes Travel Photography trips with Nomad Photo Expeditions and recently won the places category in the 2012 National Geographic Photo Contest. 72 hours later he had lost it. The winning image was disqualified because he had removed a plastic bag in post. A blog post about what happened (read it here) has an email from the editor telling him that cropping the bag out or simply leaving it in would have had no impact, but digitally removing it violates the rules. Ouch. Harry is a good sport about it and concludes that had he been on the jury, he would have done the same saying, “rules are rules.”

Many people will argue that photography can never tell the truth. That the lens, image processing, where you stand, and what you chose to include in an image all alter the facts. This misses the point entirely. The point of truth telling in photography is for the photographer to make an image that gets us as close to the truth as they can. That is the goal. Now that the mechanical limitations of photography (film and printing) are gone we are less reliant on the camera to tell the truth, so that obligation falls on the photographer. You must build trust with your viewers and editors so they believe what you are saying.

This is an unusual position to be in, because photographers often relied on the camera and film to do this. Inherent imitations of the medium prevented them from doing too much to alter what happened (although many pushed it as far as it would go). Limitations may be returning to cameras. A new software development by the the human rights organization Witness aims to make it easiter to verify the authenticity of video, photos, or audio created and shared from mobile devices (story on Nieman Journalism Lab). “The app collects metadata that it will bundle and encrypt with your photo or video — including generating an encryption key based on the camera’s pattern of sensor noise, which is unique to each camera.”

The current practice of submitting RAW files for verification (to magazines and contests) may soon be assumed by software that does the verification for us. I expect this will be taken to the next logical step and any work that’s done in post will be recorded and encrypted by the software as well. Eventually news organizations and contests could set a “score” that’s some percentage of allowed manipulation to the pixels of an image that they consider ok. Maybe the software will disable certain tools used in post processing (this is Hal, I’ve disabled the clone tool). Regardless, the goal will be the same. Getting us closer to the truth. And the burden will return to the limitations of the software and not the photographer. That will be a good thing.

Update: the contest was incorrect [corrected], it was not Traveler’s but National Geographic magazine’s, which is officially called the National Geographic Photo Contest. And Harry Fisch was the Places Category Winner not the Grand Prize Winner of the overall contest [corrected].

There Are 22 Comments On This Article.

  1. I agree that developments like this would be a wonderful and welcomed advancement. The idea of a ‘score’ is really intriguing. I would welcome contests that require lower and lower scores – a zero-score contest would be interesting indeed!

  2. A. Noninoni

    Sorry, but that’s just stupid. If it were film and they burned the right side of the print, would that have been thrown out? What if they just cropped the bag out of the image (cropping has been around long before Photoshop)? I don’t really favor digital alterations when it comes to editorial or documentary images, but disallowing processing techniques that have been done since the beginning of photography seems a little excessive.

  3. Rob wrote: “Many people will argue that photography can never tell the truth. That the lens, image processing, where you stand, and what you chose to include in an image all alter the facts. This misses the point entirely.”

    It’s also not correct. Lens, shutter speed, depth of field/focus, composition, exposure, camera position and more are all choices of the photographer which convey his/her PERSPECTIVE (POV) of the subject. They comprise the image and do not alter the facts on their own but certainly do make a statement, even a judgement about the scene or subject. That’s inherent in photography and unavoidable.

    I do support the notion that post processing/manipulation which alters the facts must not be allowed to pass for editorial or documentary photography. The definition of “manipulation” becomes essential.

    I believe that a journalist should strive to convey the truth by capturing visual information as it is and must present it without post manipulation, but your “truth” may differ from mine. I don’t need to resort to post in order to manipulate my audience.

    In the end, the photographer must work in an ethical manner and the viewer must be discerning. That’s not really new, just more challenging in our digital world.

  4. It’s too late for any of that. Pandora’s box has already been opened. If a magazine or contest told me I could only submit raw files I would nicely tell them to kiss my ass!

  5. Truth and documentation are separate concepts. A photograph could have full integrity as a document (assuming that’s possible) and still lie. A work of fiction can show many truths.

  6. It’s too strict.

    The plastic bag was by no means an essential part of the picture. Its removal did not change the world in the picture, but, on the contrary, put a better focus on it. The plastic bag was seriously hurting the composition.

    I don’t think the image was less true without the plastic bag than with it.

    Choosing exposure had an infinitely larger impact on the “truth” than removing a plastic bag (which was probably trash, and seriously disturbed the composition).

    If you really want to judge photography by the truth you could also object that the eye doesn’t see this scene as the camera did in this underexposed way.

    In this image, the scene looked like a glowing pattern of light on a dark surface. The eye would see it differently. It would focus on the fire and have the rest of the image sink into dark – or, if it was closer to sunset, have a generally brighter impression of the scene.

    And what about choosing depth of field and focal length? That’s also serious manipulation, but it is an analogue one.

    I have the impression that this is more of an antiquated argument of digital versus analog than about the truth in pictures.

  7. if youre doing contests, you have to follow the rules – period. all of them have their own rules, some allow making significant alternations, some dont. so this is really about contests as much as it is about photography and post processing. work your ass off to create great content. if you want to do the contest thing follow the rules. if you dont want something in your photo, take it out before you shoot, or move to a different angle, and dont shoot it . . . no matter what you choose to do, just be honest and real . . . that’s all.

  8. It’s a shame that we as photographers have not embraced some of the language from semiotics that would allow us to avoid the linguistic traps we fall into when we try to talk about truth and photography.

    ‘Truth’ or ‘reality’ are almost always the wrong concepts because while we may value the truth, it is not what makes a photo special. For photographers this is frustrating because we all understand on some level that photographs are different than other representations, but we have trouble talking about it.

    A better framework is to go all the way back to C.S. Pierce and look at his distinction between types of signs, especially the icon and the index. The icon is a type of sign that refers to something in the world by resembling it. The icons on your computer screen are good examples—the little print button represents paper by looking like paper. Paintings, sculpture, photos—basically all representational art—are icons in Pierce’s system.

    The index is different. It points to the thing it represents through a causal link. The thing to which it refers causes the sign. A windsock is a canonical example—it communicates wind speed and direction because we understand how the wind causes it to move. Mercury in a thermometer, footprints, the smell of baking bread are indexes—as signs they point directly to the thing that caused them.

    So while all representational art are icons, the photograph distinguishes itself by also being an index. The subject causes the photograph.

    We may not put it into these terms, but we generally understand this distinction instinctively. This is why a painting of a politician in bed with someone else’s wife is art, but a photograph of the same thing is a scandal. We lend authenticity to indexical signs that we don’t to icons. This is why a book signed by an author can be valuable, but a forgery that is visually identical is worthless; why a dinosaur fossil is fascinating, but a plaster reproduction is only interesting.

    When we start talking about photography in these terms, many of the problems of ‘truth’ go away because it’s not about truth. The painting of the politician can be just as true as the photograph, but we still don’t care. The photo can still be misleading, even a lie, but so long as the indexical relationship remains intact it carries a semiotic meaning that we value. This is part of the appeal of artists like Jeff Wall who create fictions for the camera—they are ‘false’ but the index remains unbroken.

    There are many other ways of looking at this that have come and gone over the years. Almost all of them are better than jumping into the quagmire of talking about truth. Another good example is Kendall Walton’s ‘Transparent Pictures’ theory. It’s finable on the web—published in Critical Inquiry in 1984—and highly recommended as a framework for talking about photography and its relationship to the world.

    • I understand where your coming from Mark, but, what if a wind sock didn’t show us anything about the wind in the way we believe it does? My contention is that we lend to much “authenticity” to what we see in photographs as index to our world.

      Let’s say the photograph of the politician hung in a gallery with Jeff Walls name next to it, just like a conceptual painting. The cause of the symbols we see is from Jeff Walls mind, not bread baking in an oven or wind in a wind sock. If the same photograph is on the cover of the New York Times, it’s index changes and we’re all voting for someone else. Not because of a new found understanding of our world, but because, we believe. Now, who decides where the photograph hangs or is printed? What criteria do they use?

      Like the wind sock stuck in one position, there may no longer be the causal relationship between what’s in a photograph and the world, as we’ve always assume. In many ways, it never existed in the first place.

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  10. For editorial, documental and photojournalism, respect the spirit of the scene is a capital value. What are these disciplines without honesty. You can do all the work around the picture for other genres like illustration, art, publicity. We know that the contract with public with this other disciplines of photography imply fake and stage situations.
    Mr Robert Wilde, the same argument you mentioned is used against you. Why remove something that is considered not essential? Because it matters.
    Honesty is not a temporary habit.
    More about this issue here
    http://hernanzenteno.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/honesty-in-photojournalism-accord-eugene-smith-en-espanol-abajo/
    and here
    http://hernanzenteno.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/altered-states-photojournalism-integrity-and-the-modern-world/

  11. Glenn Gilchrist

    If I take a long exposure of the ocean, is that real? Seriously, this is absurd. I was going to say more, but what’s the point?

  12. Hi ! This is the photographer, Harry Fisch ! :-)

    I have been reading some of the comments and let me advance that should I have been part of the jury, I would have acted exactly as they did: rules are rules. Long before being a photographer I was a …lawyer.
    All this said, should I have the choice, I wood choose to be the winner instead of the loser….

    I am leaving tomorrow for another trip to Havana. And in march to Varanasi again http://harryfisch.blogspot.com.es/ . If a find a plastic bag in the “wrong” place, I will, without any doubt or fear, erase it :-) . Anything to produce (yes, produce) a nice image :-)

    The submited image was not a photojournalistic picture nor a real testimony. It was an artistic interpretation of a reality: a false reality from the very beginning. I come from another discipline, here you will see some of my other un-realistic work http://cargocollective.com/HarryFisch .

    “Technical Elaboration” ? “Colour adjustments” ? “Minor sharpening” ?
    What about the election of the depth of field, high/low keys, artificial lighting, etc… In practice, believe me, I sincerely understand what National Geographic does and, again, I would probably do the same in the same circumstances.
    Nobody really cares about the discussion of what “reality” is . As a matter of fact Freud defined “Reality” of our psychological elaboration… And, specially, in a Photographic contest with 22.000 submissions :-). The fundamentalist approach of National Geographic and others is, again and allways, much more a commercial concern (they do not want to “lose” their time) than anything else. Nothing wrong about that. They claim to be concerned with filters and photoshop but nowhere in the world a picture gets so much technical elaboration than the photography they do publish in their paper magazine :-)

    PS.- Please excuse me if I can not follow the comments, in Havana Internet is not so easy to reach..

  13. Truth can be defined in so many different ways….reality and “artistic” truth being just two. The problem for each photographer is to personally decide which of all the various truths is the one of greatest importance for a particular image. I’ve been posting & critiquing images w/ Harry for some time now and can attest that personal, artistic truth trumps everything else…as they do for me. Hats off Harry for coming up w/ such a the great photograph. Next time though, be sure to read the fine print ;-) Have fun in Havana….very jealous.

  14. Rules are not rules…. Rules are choices. Let’s make that clear.

    Many, many thoughtful posts here. On this kind of issue, everybody is right and everybody is wrong. In a community, in this case a profession, pure consensus usually cannot be reached, so rules must be chosen based on time honored principles. When technologies transform quickly, as they do now, it throws the rule makers into a reactionary tizzy and the rules that emerge make some very happy and others very sad, as witnessed in this forum. I won’t tell you how I feel, but it’ll be a great while before we’re all only modestly content again with the rules. It was a long, long time from when Ansel put that deep red filter on his lens and convinced us all that the sky was black over Half Dome…. to the first time any of us moved or modified a pixel on our computer screens. We became complacent with our old rules.