Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Photography Or Fraud?

OriginalI AM OFTEN ASKED why I use a hyphen when describing myself as a photo-journalist, rather than just combining the two words into one; but the answer itself lies in the hyphen. I consider myself a journalist – who just happens to carry a camera.

Early on in my freelance career, I found that it was much easier to sell a feature accompanied by suitable photographic coverage than it was to sell copy alone. (And it also pays more in the process).

My decision to combine both skills, which is now very fashionable in the freelance market, did not particularly endear me to the UK. My NUJ application was turned down because I was not a full-time journalist – and they also explained I could not be admitted because I was not a full-time press photographer either.

I am told that the NUJ’s rules are now less stringent and more freelance friendly; but I have never reapplied given that union’s militant stance over Wapping.

Recently I have been capturing #photojournalism on Twitter and, amongst the Amazon spam, have been surprised to find that any work outside a warzone is sparsely represented. In addition, Twitterers seem unduly obsessed with what constitutes a ‘true’ image – and whether any image derived from a digital platform can be trusted. It appears that many believe that film is tamper proof, whilst many digital photographers are fraudsters.

Well, the fact is that the camera has always lied. No photograph ever shows the viewer what lies outside the frame - or what the photographer has purposely excluded. Moreover, no written article has ever told the whole story or provided details of what individual journalists have decided to omit from their account.

Journalists have the freedom to use their language’s vocabulary to paint a particular picture of the facts; but it seems that some would deny a similar ability for photographers to present the story they choose to tell.

I find the argument totally bewildering.

Personally, from a photographic stand-point, I have never used a Lab to develop my film or my prints. There are just too many variables involved in the process to be sure that the results will be as expected. And therein lies the fallacy of those that argue original colours in a digital image should not be modified – or the image itself cropped to enhance the subject.

Neither two-and-a-quarter, nor 35mm negatives, ever fitted on 10x8 paper without cropping – and what transparency photographer ever exposed for a grey card reading without ensuring they also took slightly under-exposed shots to enhance the colour saturation?

Trying to impose any artificial restrictions upon a photographer’s ability to influence their images is an affront to the craft. That is not to say that photographers should not adhere to journalistic ethics regarding the Truth (and refrain from combining separate images without bringing attention to the fact) but, rather, like their text-based colleagues, photojournalists should be permitted to bring their full skills to bear in ensuring the viewer shares in their own thoughts and emotions whilst taking the shot.

Journalists have the opportunity to rephrase and modify their draft account before sending it to press; but, for some reason, photojournalists should be denied the ability to have their photographs express what they feel? Do we, as a society, expect photojournalists to be restricted to the same old rules that used to apply to humble reporters and staff photographers – duly turning-out cold facts without being able to express an opinion or investigate the ungodly? If so, then perhaps we should divide the profession into photojournalists and photoreporters.

I cannot help thinking that the reason Twitter’s #photojournalism tag is so swamped by war coverage is that it is the only environment in which the limited skill set of todays crop of budding photographers can produce powerful images for their portfolios. But the fact is that even the most unappealing subject can be turned into a powerful image if you have the necessary skills.

Winter lightTake that boring lamp-post shot, presented at the beginning of this post – and compare it to the processed image here.

Now what is ‘unethical’ about that?..

My point here is that it is often the case that obstacles can get in the way of achieving the best angle from which to take a shot. And, even when a telephoto lens is mounted, sometimes the action takes place before its focal length can be adjusted.

So what is wrong with applying a crop?..

And what is wrong with introducing some colour to the bulb, in this example, to complete the image’s focal point and have the viewer’s eye held in the frame? Particularly since that is what would have been captured anyway had the light been on.

In my humble opinion: it is the story that counts. And, if that means processing images in a specific way to ensure the facts are known: so be it. I am not about to give-up my Nikons’ controls or Photoshop in an effort to appease a bunch of armchair critics with so little knowledge or regard for the craft…

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