You cannot Define the Truth Instrumentally

About two weeks ago I was surfing the net and I  stumbled on this image on a Helsinki Times page. “Nice HDR-work” was my initial reaction (took me c. two seconds) and then, WTF? Byline with photographer and STT/Lehtikuva/Reuters… What was this?

I got interested, googled this particular photographer just to see if this was his style in general. I put it in FB and tweeted it, basically asking was there anyone with a half of brain thinking in these agencies (a very PC thing to do, btw, for a freelancer…)

Found out that there were voices already questioning this, that Scanpix had also been in the delivery chain and that Reuters had already issued a “correction” and filed the “correct” image. But the image above had already been printed in the most prominent daily publications in the world, including our HS and DN in Sweden. Found out that there were already editors saying how unforturnate this was and how… blah, blah,blah…  Well, you probably saw it so you know how it went.

And the point of all this?

"Before" and "After"

Very simple: there were three, four stages of so called professionals looking at this image and pushing it forward along the chain. Didn’t anybody raise any questions? Took me one glance at the image to come up with conclusion “Great HDR-work”.  People working  in Reuters, Scanpix, Lehtikuva, etc.should be professionals about this. Surely they could see it immediately? Maybe something should have been done before all you could do was public corrections and apologies?

To freely quote Kalle Palander: “Kinda late whining when the brown stuff is already in your pants”.

So what were the reasons for this happening? I listed quickly couple of choices popping to my mind:

  • Incompetence? No, not on this level – people are (or should be) professionals.
  • Je m’en foutisme – as the french say? Maybe, but then there would be deeper reasons for that to happen – understaffing, underpayment, etc.
  • Pressed with time? Bad excuse. No, press images is a professional business and that was not an image of a plane hitting the towers i.e it was not that urgent.
  • Trying to make more money? Trying to sell image (so that e.g. Getty would not sell theirs) or trying to make paper look great (i.e. better than the competitor). NOW WE ARE GETTING SOMEWHERE.

But what really infuriates me is the increasing tolerance for things like this. When the poor stringer (for Reuters, btw) in Beirut darkened the skies couple of years back, not only did he get fired, but it was big news for a long time – and the incident is still referred to as an schoolbook example when talking about “manipulation” of  images. Now all we got was “Oops, sorry, here’s the correct image” – and back to business as usual. Heard even some voices muttering “well, you know, freelancers can do anything…”

And by acting this way we are supposed to project the image of professional photojournalism to the public? Yet another nail into the coffin of  plausible photojournalism – hammered in by ourselves.

So we should ban pseudo-HDR?

Well hell no. That would show total ignorance of modern technology of photograpy . That is: trying to limit things instrumentally.

By this I mean, trying to limit it by  “you cannot do x, you cannot do y, you cannot do z…” The list would be endless and always incomplete.

“Only the things which were possible in the classic darkroom should be allowed” is often heard but it is equally inadequate – it’s just pushing the problem under the rug and somehow yearning for the “good old times” when nothing like this could have been conceivable – which is totally untrue.

“Images should be printed/displayed as they are from the camera”. Right… – and have you ever shot professionally?  Ever heard of dynamic range and diffrences between the eyes and the sensors?

I show again an example I posted earlier, because I feel it shows this so clearly. The image on the left is “straight from the camera” – correctly exposed (see histogram) and the one one the right is just the histogram streched to the available dynamic range. Manipulation? No, simple professional editing.

Left: straight out of camera; Right: full dynamic range used.

“As it comes from the camera is totally empty phrase also because everything depends on the camera -and in the case of professional DSLR-cams, how you have set the camera to perform: profiles, sharpening, ALO, etc.

How about pseudo-HDR, which obviously was used in the ash-cloud image – or even true HDR – I mean SURELY they should be totally banned and black-listed?

Absolutely no. I state it once again: You cannot define the truth instrumentally. Defining “the journalistic truth” is very hard by itself – doing it instrumentally is outright impossible, a total dead end.

How about composites and true HDR?

Take a look at my banner-image. It consists of four images – shot within a timeframe of c. 10 seconds – stiched together. Would you classify this as “manipulation”  (as much as I hate that word)? Does it lie in any way, present “the truth”, the situation inaccurately? Apart from the fact that  naturally we do not see 360° views . As we do not see e.g. 104° views either – which is you FOV from 14mm lens on FF 35mm…

Here is the same image projected in Flash; how is it untruthful to the situation I am photographing? Remember, you are looking at a photograph, a jpg-image, just in spherical projection.

“Yes, but you made that image out of 4 images, so it is manipulation”. No, you are not listening nor thinking – or maybe reading properly, in this case.

How about true HDR, like this one below?

It consists of three images, I shot it couple of weeks ago on a very grey day near to where I live. Is it “manipulated”? What if I had gone the other way, and done monochrome – or tinted – would it be less or more “manipulated”? Or long exposure, say a sec or so, to blur the water? My triple exposure bracket was a total of maybe 1/2th sec. Dynamics of the camera – or of my eye – were just not up to this light.

I am arguing that this does differ from the ash-cloud image. How can I say that?

Semantic definition

It  is very simple: you cannot write a list of any kind and say “this is ok, but that, that, that, is not…”

It’s totally fruitless – and if it could be done in the first place, we’d have that list tattooed on our arm the first year of journalism school.  No, we have to use something else than an instrumental definition of rules of what goes and what doesn’t.

My own personal solution is trying to remember each time to ask myself the question “Am I lying with this image?” before I file it for a particular story.  Do I lie with the image above, the skier at the gate  or with the banner image? I’d argue I don’t. Because it’s not the image itself, but the context where it is presented and used. You present with your images what you see – without lying – as simple as that.

As with words, in one context they are the accurate description of the state of the affairs – in another, they are a straight lie and total misinformation about the situation. Same words. Why should pictures be any different?

That Iceland image goes totally off in that respect. It has drama added  where there was none – just to push picture forward, to get it published, to get it sold.  It’s not question whether he used levels, curves, layers, blending modes, pseudo-HDR or even true HDR – all that is totally irrelevant. He wanted get his image forward  – and adding drama toa dull picture was a way to ensure that.

There were great pictures coming from other sources (see eg. Boston Globe) – maybe the photographer felt intimidated? And actually now, looking at some of those images, I am starting to wonder if this was a single incident or not…

I totally understand the motivation – and I totally condemn it. “Thou shall not lie” is the rule and in respectable journalism, there should be no exceptions. Even in times like this – or better – ESPECIALLY in times like this.

And I repeat: what really makes me angry is the agencies not paying attention or not caring – which is even worse.

When I teach I almost always use the same old image from my archives as an example:

Notice the “stain” on the high left? That’s the rotorblade of the helicopter. It would take me ten seconds to take it out, if that much. Still I haven’t done it, because I consider it lying, as it would present me as a better photographer as I am. That’s one form of lying – and a very tempting one – maybe it was too tempting in the ash cloud case?

I probably always use the same words when addressing students and talking about this: “Well, if  you can’t sync your finger to the blades of the chopper, you are not good enough and there are still things to be learned”.

I hope they get it… ;-)

6 Comments

  1. Primoz
    May 8, 2010

    Just a small side note. If I remember right, we have to make this straight and not blame photographer in this particular case. From this what I remember, photographer forwarded original photo, and it was changed to this one only later, at some local Iceland paper, which then forwarded photo further to Reuters.
    One more thing I don’t agree is comparing this with “Beirut incident”. No matter who did this changes, there was not much harm done. Sure it looks nothing like original, sure it adds some extra drama, but in general it doesn’t change story much. With that Beirut thing you mention, things were different. Those changes added story which there wasn’t. He added bombing, which didn’t happen (rockets launched off the plane), he added results of bombing (smoke over city) which was not there… at least not at that moment. So when we consider how much “damage” was done for reader with those photos, or with this photo from Iceland, I don’t think we can compare. But I agree, when we think how much damage it was done, with any of those photos, to our profession, we can easily compare those things.

    Reply
    • kkuukka
      May 8, 2010

      Hi –

      thank you for the comment. And I agree with both of your points. I was not aware of that i.e that the “change” was done by the relaying paper, not the photographer – thank you for setting that straight . If I were the photographer I’d sue their butt off for tampering with my reputation as a photographer – one of the most valuable things we have as professionals. But in a way it is beside the point I am trying to make: there were 3 agencies in the chain delivering the image! Somewhere along the line we should have heard the warning bells – if we want to call ourselves respectable professionals?

      Your second note is also very valid – it was totally different scale of “harm done” as you say. The two cases are not comparable in this sense, I totally agree. The point I am trying to make is the one you phrased very nicely in you last sentence: the damage done to our profession, which is more and more in dire straits. We cannot afford that.

      I really appreciate you taking the time to comment; I saw that there were some other commentary on my post (in Reddit) for example. Commentary I’d like to see it here also as the whole point is to raise some (more or less intelligent) discussion. Somebody commented (and a very good point) that use of fisheye in my helicopter example poses some issues to my argument (ie. the “manipulation” – God I hate that word – in the camera vs. in postproduction). And that is a very interesting thought. I do have some opinions about that, but it merits another post later on.

      regards,

      K

      Reply
  2. Primoz
    May 8, 2010

    I intentionally didn’t want to comment about agencies, since I work with two of mentioned agencies. :) But otherwise I agree. With today’s state of journalism and “journalism” everyone in this chain (from photographer, through agencies, to newspaper) should be more careful. We have more then enough problems without this kind of things, so we really don’t need more. And this photo is really something everyone should spot in second. Personally I even like it, but as photo hanging on wall, not as journalist’s piece of work. But no matter what, when I saw it for first time (before it was withdrawn) my first reaction was, who screwed up this time? And I didn’t mean photographer…

    Reply
  3. Hopper Stone
    September 9, 2010

    I know, I’m late to the game, but I love lurking on your blog.
    1) You say that one cannot make a list that this is OK but x,y,z, aren’t OK.
    In your comments above, you did just that. It’s Ok to make changes as long as one cannot show damages from those changes.
    There’s no point to that really…it’s just me being the son of a Jewish lawyer.
    2) One could make the point that, while you didn’t sully your image as an honest photographer by removing the rotor blade from your sailing shot, you definitely portrayed something that wasn’t there by shooting the picture with a fisheye lens (or whatever expensive toy you had recently gotten). Lens choice is just as much of a “manipulative” decision as is color balancing, dodging, burning, HDR, etc. You could have decided to be a “more honest” photographer by just using a tighter lens. I mean, people are going to blow their life savings renting helicopters so they can go up and see what you saw, only to find out that your camera lied to them.
    3) You say that you’d have sued the agency for damaging your reputation as a photographer by changing the contrast scheme as they did. Have you ever thought about suing layout people at publications if they crop your photo? I mean, if they’re putting your name under a photograph that they have decided to crop, in a way, they are taking your reputation into their hands.
    Obviously, this isn’t feasible and nobody makes changes like that with malice aforethought.

    I guess the point to my diatribe is this: Photography in its nature is subjective. Editorial decisions are made from the minute you decide that a moment warrants putting the viewfinder to your eye. So, short of adding elements that aren’t actually there or creating situations which aren’t actually there, it’s hard to make an actual claim as to where truth begins and trickery takes off.

    Or, as God’s gift to Photojournalism once said: You cannot define the truth instrumentally.
    Oh wait….I guess that was the point.
    OK, never mind.

    Reply
  4. kkuukka
    September 20, 2010

    Ok – Peter, you win. I won’t even start to argue with you… ;-) Done so much of it in the times gone by – and if I may add, enjoyed every minute of those conversations.

    A sidenote to the accidental reader stumbling on this: we are friends like 25 years back, we started from the same darkroom in a cellar a lifetime ago, then later Peter went working for Blackstar (you still are, right?), I was doing stuff for Gamma (RIP). Did a loads of stuff together way back then, trying to live “the the last golden tail of photojournalism” – or how was it you called it in that interview I saw?

    Lately living in different parts of the world our paths cross way too rarely. Last time we met was in Miami some years ago, when just by coincidence our assignments took us to the same town…

    I got to go to Espoo last night, I noticed you were in Hawai… it just isn’t fair sometimes ;-) Hawai brought to mind the view of your hotelroom in Miami and the Blue Safire martinis…

    Point being to the accidental reader: we go back a looong time, so when you see/hear us talking to each other, take that into account, it is between the lines…and we can probably tell each other words which would… well, not be so well taken from anybody else.

    And Peter, I truly appreciate that you always call and wish Happy Vappu…

    Reply
  5. Jan Vehrenkamp
    February 25, 2012

    Hello again!
    I warned you in one of my posts, that I’d be going to dig into old stuff. So here we go! :)
    Trying to keep it short, I will not go into too much detail, but as this is a topic,
    which I hear a lot of people wondering about all the time, I can’t resist the urge to share some of my thoughts with you.

    First, I have to agree on your and Hopper Stones conclusions.
    As soon as you pick up a camera, you are manipulating,
    which is perfectly fine and I believe in many cases also necessary.
    And I actually, if I remember correctly, Magnum was founded to prevent cropping of the images from their photographers.

    Second, I think the solution to this neverending debate should not be among the lines of “don’t do this or that”, but instead it should be resolved with education.
    Because the average consumer does not anticipate how much of the photographic process is done before and after the actual shooting.
    I think that’s where one has to start.
    Rather than trying to do something which can’t be done (defining the truth instrumentally), one should focus on the things that can, f.i. explaining the public how things work or how images straight-out-of-the-camera don’t give more or less truth, than those which have been post processed, other than just not looking as good as they could.
    It’s more about, how we deal with the information, that those images give us.¹

    Last fall I got to know a quite successful german nature filmmaker (Oliver Goetzl) and we had a quite long discussion about this and related topics:
    It all started with a screening of a finnish nature film, that didn’t have any music in it.
    And when we asked why that was, the reply was: “I have been in the forrest for 40 years now, and I have never heard an orchestra there.”
    Though one might argue, that the finnish filmmaker has a point, Oliver was later asked about his opinion on this statement and he responded: “..I have never seen a narrator in the forrest either.”
    We both agreed, that it is not so much about what was there and what was not, but how you can best tell the story, that you want to tell.

    Which brings me back to your initial post:
    I think the HDR image of the ash cloud tells the story in a more dramatic way, illustrating the huge force of the cloud, being able to ground the airplanes for a long time.
    Personally I’d prefer something inbetween those two images and while I could go on forever, my point is very simple:

    In the end it’s all a matter of personal preference.
    (Given that the audience is educated to understand, that cameras can’t show the truth or reality.)

    Jan

    ¹: Think about advertising 100 years back:
    They were flawless paintings, used to illustrate a certain product, which is not so different from todays commercial photography, especially if you think about beauty.
    The difference is that todays photographs seem very real, thus requiring education to know the difference between them and the reality.

    Reply

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