Exercise: The Real and the Digital

Images taken by a camera have always been manipulated; I remember going to see an exhibition of photographs of the royal family by Cecil Beaton. He described the care that would be taken in developing the films and how the prints would always be made to show royalty at their best, removing any imperfection. Images of Soviet Russia’s Politburo were scrutinised to see who was in and who had been airbrushed out of the photo.
I suppose the saying ‘the camera never lies’ dates from the earliest times of photography when manipulation of images was always possible, but nothing like as easy nor as comprehensive as it is today. Despite the fact that images were manipulated the general belief was always that a photograph showed things ‘as they were’.
It is only relatively recently that everyone has had the opportunity to manipulate images using apps on their mobile phones. But now it is so commonplace ‘the camera never lies’ is shown as the falsehood it has always been. People now have a much healthier distrust of images than ever before.
I don’t think that this necessarily matters so much, what is important is the context within which the image is shown. For example a photograph of a news event on the front page of a newspaper is very different to an image of a group of friends posted on a social networking site.
This does provide a real challenge for institutions such as news media, just one example of a manipulated image used to misrepresent an event could lead to considerable damage to the reputation for honesty of that organisation. I still remember the story broadcast by the BBC that the Queen was very angry after a photo shoot with Annie Liebovitz. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/6294472.stm and http://www.standard.co.uk/news/bbc-fails-to-calm-furious-queen-over-crowngate-affair-6669385.html ) What was broadcast as a true story turns out to have been edited in the wrong order and the ’event’ described just did not happen. The BBC had to make a complete apology for the broadcast.
Organisations that purport to show images that represent news events need to be very specificin their requirements for the images that they use. It is why some of them are so rigorous in enforcing a ‘no manipulation of images’ rule even if it is simply adjustment to exposure etc.
Separate issues are posed to photographers who describe themselves as ‘documentary photographers’ etc. I think that Liz Wells is correct when she talks of ‘titles’ such as documentary are of little use as labels for the kind of work that is being produced.
What is important now is the image. Is it being paraded as a true representation of a particular incident or time or is it being displayed as an image that, of itself, is worth studying? In the former instance then it is vital that no manipulation of thje image has taken place. In the latter case then to me, it does not really matter how it was produced.
As David Campany is quoted in the article “Photography is what we do with it”.