On Reality – Part 2 – Photo journalism
August 11, 2006
In the first installment (below) of this series, I pointed out a few facts: 1) we humans never see objects, what we see is light emitted from or reflected by objects, 2) light is a force that makes us “see” things. But light is typically distorted in ways that impact our mental image of the objects significantly. So how can we tell, based on vision, what reality is since we never have seen a true, unbiased view of ANYTHING.
My intention was to follow up in a Part 2 debunking popular perceptions of Reality. Then this AM I read the following article that may help clarify (or perhaps confuse) the issue at hand. Source here.
- News photographers routinely process images using Adobe Photoshop software. But there has been a basic premise in the world of photojournalism that what was allowed in making prints in the pre-digital days of darkrooms is all that is acceptable today.
- Back in the days of the darkroom, we used very basic tools to develop prints. In black and white printing, the contrast of a picture was controlled by a paper’s grade. The higher the number of the paper, the higher the contrast. In the wire agency darkrooms I’ve worked in, we typically used grades 3,4 and 5. We allowed “dodge and burn” to lighten or darken areas. A dodge tool was made by taping a small piece of cardboard the size of a quarter onto a paper clip. A burn tool was a piece of cardboard the size of an 8×10 sheet of paper with a hole in the center. If a print had dust spots caused by a dirty negative, we used Spotone, a photographic paint that was dabbed onto a print with a very fine paint brush to eliminate the unsightly marks.
- One other tool that was allowed when printing color pictures was changing color balance. This was done by placing filters between the light source of the enlarger and the paper that the image was being printed on.
- When we moved to scanning negatives and then to shooting digital, we began using Photoshop. This program allows us to do the same things we did in the darkroom. Changes in contrast, dodging and burning and color balance are now done with software. The most controversial tool in Photoshop that we use is the cloning tool. The only accepted use of this tool is to clear dust from the image. We have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to using the cloning tool to change content, and by that we mean removing something that exists in a photo, moving or replicating it or adding to a photo.
- The tools we use in Photoshop are levels, curves and saturation for changing contrasts; color balance to bring the image back to the way the natural eye would see the color. Here is what we tell our photographers in the Handbook of Reuters Journalism.
- Photoshop is a highly sophisticated image manipulation programme. We use only a tiny part of its potential capability to format our pictures, crop and size them and balance the tone and colour. For us it is a presentational tool.
- The rules are – no additions or deletions, no misleading the viewer by manipulation of the tonal and colour balance to disguise elements of an image or to change the context.
- Photoshop is a powerful image processing program with many more tools to help photographers produce the best quality image they can for the type of photography they do. There is not a Photoshop program for use by news photographers and another for advertising, where image-changing is tolerated. What we in the news photo community need to regulate is what tools are used for photojournalism and what are not.”
Please note – I have absolutely no issue with these rules. They are great. Let’s do our best to preserve “reality”. Noble goal.
But let’s think. “Dodge and burn” can easily alter a picture dramatically. In fact, you can render a picture all black or all white, destroying any “real” content easily. This is true whether using Photoshop or a traditional darkroom. The same is true of using color correcting filters or – digitally – white balance. Frowning on – or even single out – the “clone” tool seems a bit naive.
So what is the point? Photo manipulation has gone on – by journalists and others – for some 150 years. Sometimes this manipulation is to make the image “more real”, sometimes the opposite. The article admits camera images do not reflect “reality”. It says journalists should pursue and be accountable for presenting “reality”. Some defined manipulation is “ok”, some is – pretty arbitrarily – not. In fact you can get fired if you move a pyramid a foot or two. Or an inconvenient hill side. Heck, light alone can move the perception of a pyramid. Fog or smoke can obscure a hill side.
Then these “rules” per the article, well meaning as they are, seem a bit like hearing the story of the alcoholic sitting in his favorite bar drinking soda all night. Not that I imply photo journalists are alcoholics (well, maybe a few). But to expect any photographer NOT to use appropriate tools to make better images is – in my mind – both wrong and naive. To say some rules – as above – somehow preserves “reality” is plain foolish.
Journalism is about presenting unbiased views of current events. The who, what, where etc. business. It’s, of course, hotly debated whether or not journalism does that – but it is a stated goal. Nothing wrong with the goal. And nothing wrong with the goal of presenting fair, unbiased journalistic images. But “fair, unbiased” does not reflect some naive definition of “reality”.
Stay tuned for installment 3. Thank you – Karl