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?
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.
“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?
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… ;-)