Monday, April 27, 2015

"Fact and Fiction in Photography" (and in Nonfiction)

The New York Times recently ran a piece on "Fact and Fiction in Modern Photography," asking several prominent photographers to weigh in on issues relating to contemporary photojournalism. As always, I see a profound intersection between documentary photography and autobiographical writing, and the many interesting observations below might be read as commentary on like issues in creative nonfiction, such as questions of authenticity, of narrative versus calendar truths, of verisimilitude, of imagination versus document, and of fluid form in response to changing cultural conditions. (See "A Photographer and an Essayist Walk Into a Bar" in Bending Genre.)

From the intro:
There is a struggle going on in documentary photography between proponents of journalistic ethics and practices and those who believe that new visual and storytelling strategies are needed to communicate effectively in the modern world. The controversies surrounding this year’s World Press Photo awards have amplified this debate.

As the World Press awards are presented this week in Amsterdam, we have asked several photographers, curators and editors for their thoughts on the debate.

After reading these essays, we invite you to add your thoughts in the comments section. We will add selected comments of fewer than 250 words to this text to further the conversation.
Some select quotes:

"Once upon a time you needed bravado to get the winning image. Today, you need a strong moral compass and a knowledge of the history of traditional Western paintings." Azu Nwagbogu. Jury chair member, 2015 World Press Photo contest, director of the African Artists’ Foundation and the Lagos Photo Festival.


"What kind of stories do we want to tell?

We can show reality. Or we can, in projects which might be more personal, photograph fictional or staged stories.

But we cannot mix them. The beauty of journalism is that it is real. Real is pretty incredible. But it has rules. Personal projects that are more interpretive and express intimate ideas are valuable to us because there are no rules. It is our own secret garden. But we can’t fictionalize reality. That’s the bottom line.


I’m excited by the more contemporary photographic approaches to covering issues. But they must be truthful images. When photographers lie in their captions and misrepresent reality, they set all of us back. They create a mistrust of all of us and our photographs." Maggie Steber. Photographer.


"I think photojournalism is dead.

The language that developed over the last 50 or 60 years has become irrelevant. Because we’ve seen it all before, instead of emphasizing, it reduces. The idea and intent is still very much alive, but it’s not enough to show up and hope that extraordinary things happen in front of your lens. Why? Because now the whole world is a camera with an Internet connection.

The power of the single image has diminished. What’s more powerful are Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. The constant, relentless tsunami of images showing up in your virtual living room. That’s more personal, and more potent, than a solitary photograph on the front page of a newspaper.

We need new words to talk about what’s happening in the world, and those new words are ideas. When photojournalists resist the gravitational pull of the old vernacular, as Tim Heatherington did with “sleeping soldiers,” Richard Mosse did with “infra” and Donald Weber did with his images of Molotov cocktails from Ukraine, we wake up. We pay attention. And things begin to matter again." Phil Toledano. Photographer.


"I know what I would think if a reporter manufactured a quote because he thought it reasonable that the subject of a story would say something similar, even if he hadn’t. If caught, reporters doing such a thing would lose their credibility and most likely their jobs.

When it comes to photojournalism, I must be sure the photographer was truthful, that he or she didn’t set the whole thing up by asking people to create or recreate scenes.

I must be sure the image wasn’t substantially altered later, electronically, in a way that changed the scene by entirely, or partly, removing an inconvenient element of the photo. There is zero tolerance for that.

Neither should the photographer significantly darken (or lighten) portions of the image in a way that portrays the scene very differently from how he saw it, an area slightly more subjective perhaps and one open to the good judgment of the photographer, editor or contest jury.

The news and sports photographer should not interfere with, nor attempt to recreate or direct their subjects. Of course, their very presence will often affect the scene initially, but the most skillful practitioners build trust with their subjects and are eventually ignored, allowing them to document accurately.

Portraiture is mostly, by its very nature, a construct, usually involving posing and the use of lighting to accentuate certain features of the subject or the environment. We should clearly call it portraiture and know what was done to achieve the image on scene, in camera or in postproduction." Santiago Lyon. Vice president and director of photography, The Associated Press.


"The photographer’s purpose should be declared, and his or her methods, if differing from the 'traditionally accepted,' might need an explanation. But not out of fear but more simply because we need to know and also accept certain new ways of representation. Even if they are quite explicit, we need to train our eye, our brain to different ways of seeing in order to apply our judgment to what we are shown as viewers.

Soon we might not need those explanations anymore, because the “new ways” will become more common and therefore accepted and understood for what they are: an interpretive representation of reality.

As all photography is.

Back to point zero." Arianna Rinaldo. Director, OjodePez magazine, artistic director of Cortona on the Move.


And finally, this excerpt from a 1956 interview of W. Eugene Smith during an American Society of Media Photographers event. Interviewer Philippe Halsmann asked about Smith's practice of sometimes staging photographs:
Q. I remember your picture of a Spanish woman throwing water into the street. Was this staged?

A. I would not have hesitated to ask her to throw the water. (I don’t object to staging if and only if I feel that it is an intensification of something that is absolutely authentic to the place.)

Q. Cartier-Bresson never asks for this…. Why do you break this basic rule of candid photography?

A. I didn’t write the rules — why should I follow them? Since I put a great deal of time and research to know what I am about? I ask and arrange if I feel it is legitimate. The honesty lies in my — the photographer’s — ability to understand.
This photo of a battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa., in June or July 1863 is believed to have been staged, as were many of the battlefield photographs made during the Civil War by Timothy O’Sullivan, Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady. (Photo and caption via The New York Times)


Dull Tool Dim Bulb said...

Hmm...this is interesting as photographs in the press have been cropped, edited and manipulated since day one. They were "enhanced" with paint before publication. I have numerous examples. Some examples....

Joe Bonomo said...

Indeed! Good stuff, Jim.