On Reality – Part 3 – More on Photojournalism

August 14, 2006

My “On Reality” series started out with a modest, but to some, controversial issue: the fallacy of “Reality”. I aimed for three installments, all about our brain’s interpretation of “reality” based on all kinds of distortions around and inside us . The brain’s view is flawed in a great number of ways. That is principally due to simple physics.

The funny thing is that I already have been branded as an “existentialist” and subject to “metaphysics” because of, mostly, views expressed in “Reality – Part 1″ below. I can’t wait for thecomments on the rest of the series. “Lock the madman up”? Fair enough.

I guess it is OK to say “what I see, receive, touch, create, hate, study and capture is as real as it gets and that is good enough”. I “know” reality. I deal with “it” every day. Further, consider the reality of global warming, the death of US soldiers, birth, death, the rape of earth, poverty, love, cancer, drugs, overdrawn checking accounts, the price of oil, Enron, ingrown toenails, misery, Al Quada, IED’s, Beirut and AIDS.

All of these things are “real” enough in our minds.

Warning: Photos in this post are faked, staged or worse!

Why do I do this blog? I’m a documentary photographer. This subject is central to my profession, inspite of my statements seemingly to the opposite. I can’t do what I do without a solid stand. It is that simple. Not to mention the rights of Free Speach that seem a bit ignored here and there in our lively discussion.

My point

Do our perceptions really pick up “Reality”? Will we, on occasion, do the wrong thing because we misinterpreted “Reality”? How come AIDS is not cured? Do we really know about any of the above issues? There are nuances in any big issue. There are contradictions. I accept that. What about your opinion?SAtaged Vietnam War execution of POW

There are contradictions in Wade vs Roe, Intelligent Design – Evolution – Creationism, Whaling, Seal hunts, the mind of our government and the thoughts of my dog. Each viewpoint defines a version of “Reality”. Curious given we really have no idea what true reality is.

Heck, we went to war in Iraq based on misinterpreted “Reality”.

Perhaps I should mention that most of my images are heavily adjusted in either a dark room or in Photoshop. The purpose is to maximize the artistic quality and the message contained in the image as I perceive it. I am very much a proponent of a conscious and disciplined work flow. Each step is carefully planned from spotting the photo opportunity, formulating a plan, shooting the shoot and performing all the post production steps. I know from the start what I want in the final result. There is very little room for chance (mostly). Certainly I have my own rules about what is “OK” to do. Of course, I’m an artist so I can do what I want. Besides, no one can fire me! I do not try to mimic Reality. I produce impressions, moods and ideas as perceived and created by me. I’m not a journalist.

The plan

As it stands, my plan for three installments in this series has been upped to about ten installations. Three are done. This installment will discuss three recent newspaper articles mainly dealing with Adnan Hajj. Then, I’ll get back to my original plan and discuss distortions of reality in general. Then I plan to publish five posts on photo manipulation in its many different forms. The tenth post will attempt to summarize what I’m trying to tell you.

Today’s subject

Suddenly, this Adnan Hajj fellow popped up. The guy added Photoshop smoke to a picture of an Israeli attack on Lebanon. He implied that dropping flares from an Israeli jet fighter killed innocents. Editors, once they realized the crime, reacted decisively. The camera man’s intention obviously was to make Israel look bad. This, then, is a politically motivated distortion of a journalistic reality. He was promptly fired. All his photos were banned.

The Original and Fake Photographs of Adnan HajjThe news organization (Reuters) went into the “We’re sorry” act. They published their guidelines for what photographic “corrections” are ok and which are not. My last “Reality – Part 2 ” installment (which actually was picked up by Reuters) criticized these guidelines. My point is and was that the guidelines are naive and inconsistent. They are no guarantee that the accuracy of the original image or subject is preserved.

I am by no means saying it’s ok to manipulate journalistic pictures to encourage biased, unfair or inaccurate conclusions. Any journalist has a duty (naive as I am) to provide accurate, fair and objective accounts of events. That does not mean that Reality is reflected by such accounts. Reality is a fleeing, slippery, hidden, distorted, subjective, scientifically non-existing subject. That is what this series is all about.

A quick, digressing example. the Hubble telescope, way up in space, is helping scientists produce the most amazing shots of space ever seen. Great science and truly fascinating to most of us. What could be more unbiased, generally free from human hands as it is up there? Do the final pictures reflect a new frontier of “Reality”? Perhaps a new frontier, absolutely not reality. These images go through the most rigorous, complex, bizarre, computerized set of amplifications, filtering, corrections, general surgery and who knows what. The result is brilliant but has very little, if anything, to do with what the Hobble scope “saw”. The pictures are simply some scientist’s fantasy of what may be.

On three articles about Adnan Hajj

Here are quotes from today’s three articles. The three articles are from 1) Slate, 2) New York Times and 3) Washington Post. They were all published Thursday – Sunday this/last week. I provide links to all three at the bottom of this post.

New York Times

NYT most likely used standard sources to provide little original insight in “Bloggers Drive Inquiry on How Altered Images Saw Print”. As expected, it views bloggers as one line of defense to photo distortions. It was a blogger that originally raised the alarm. Not that is was a difficult task. Mr. Hajj’s skills as a Photoshopper are not overwhelming.Faked photo of BigFoot

The fake photo is 1) easily spotted because it is simply done badly, and 2) not as good as the original anyway. How exciting.

The article also mentions the plight of overworked photo editors, making quality control difficult. I bet you that a well made manipulation of the most grotesque kind will and do pass any of these simple minded controls. It seems there are two ways the “fakes” are caught 1) poor quality (such as that of Mr. Hajj) and 2) implausible content. Example: placing Oprah’s face on top of Ann Margaret’s body, then publishing it on TV Guide’s front page.

A few quotes from the New York Times’ article by KATHARINE Q. SEELYE and JULIE BOSMAN:

“Mr. Hajj, a Lebanese photographer based in the Middle East, may not be familiar to many newspaper readers. But thanks to the swift justice of the Internet, he has been charged, tried and convicted of improperly altering photographs he took for Reuters. The pictures ran on the Reuters news service on Saturday, and were discovered almost instantly by bloggers to have been manipulated. Reuters then announced on Sunday that it had fired the freelancer. Executives said yesterday that they were still investigating why they had not discovered the manipulation before the pictures were disseminated to newspapers.

The matter has created an uproar on the Internet, where many bloggers see an anti-Israel bias in Mr. Hajj’s manipulations, which made the damage from Israeli strikes into Beirut appear worse than the original pictures had. One intensified and replicated plumes of smoke from smoldering debris. In another, he changed an image of an Israeli plane to make it look as if it had dropped three flares instead of one.”

“As a safeguard, he said, any pictures that The Tribune considers for its front page are printed out in color, 8-by-10 hard copies and displayed on the wall of the Page 1 conference room so that editors can review them throughout the day. ****

“Mr. Hajj told Reuters he was merely trying to remove a speck of dust and fix the lighting in the photos, Mr. Holmes said. Several bloggers have contended that Mr. Hajj was driven by a political agenda, critical of Israel. Mr. Holmes said Reuters was trying to contact Mr. Hajj but he was not responding to messages.”

**** This is my favorite comment! I thought people went to conference rooms to meet and discuss matters. Apparently, though, people might be bored enough to check the walls and put in their dime’s worth of prime quality control. Hey, CIA, this is how you check those bin-Laden tapes for accuracy. Forget about that analysis crap.

Washington Post

This is a somewhat better article, partly because it does not single out photo issues but also hits on Staged photo of very famous statusgeneral journalistic problems. It does have a clear bias against photos/articles from the Near East. That bias may not be valid in light of the overwhelming historical evidence that news manipulation is a world wide, and quite old, phenomena. The photos in this post, going back some 140 years, should prove that point.

There is little real insight in the article beyond the obvious, conventional misconceptions. The author – Deborah Howell – inspected a number of photos and did not spot manipulation – possibly because there was no manipulation (unlikely in my view) or because the changes were well enough done for an untrained eye. What’s that prove?

A few quotes:

“Pictures of pain and suffering, especially on Page 1, can have a profound and emotional effect on readers. Jonathan Javitt of the District asked: “When will you get tired of being manipulated by Arab propaganda stunts?” Other readers questioned whether photos were staged. The Reuters news agency’s admission that a freelance photographer had altered two photographs — neither used in The Post — stoked readers’ suspicions.”

“The way the two Reuters photographs were doctored — to make smoke darker and add flares dropped from a plane — was “beyond stupid,” Elbert said. Post policy prohibits altering photos. “We don’t use tools to change reality,” he said. Reuters said that the freelancer, Adnan Hajj, had been dropped and editing tightened.”

“Robinson-Chavez was in Gaza, Israel and Lebanon for five weeks. He explained why readers don’t see pictures of suspected Hezbollah guerrillas, whose stronghold is southern Lebanon. They are recognizable because they’re young and bearded and have walkie-talkies — and don’t want to be photographed. He said they intentionally are not armed when photographers are around. He was detained by several one day and then released.”

Ho-hum.

Slate:

Here is by far the best article. It provides true insight in a careful, measured way. It’s headlined Frank Capa's famous Spanish Civil War picture - rumored a fake“Don’t Believe What You See in the Papers – The untrustworthiness of news photography”. The author , the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead. The section is labeled as “Photography: From daguerreotypes to digital” which is a promising subject right off the bat. The article does not disappoint.

Here are some quotes:

“…I heard the latest in photojournalism’s long line of mini-scandals, this one involving a Lebanese freelancer named Adnan Hajj who was working in Beirut. Hajj altered at least two photographs: In one he cloned a plume of smoke rising from buildings that Israeli planes had bombed; in another he altered the image of an Israeli F-16 to make it look like it was dropping more ordnance than it was. Both pictures were bought by Reuters, which sent them out on its photo service. When the forgeries were pointed out, the agency pulled the pictures, dismissed the photographer, and issued a statement asserting that such fakery had no place in the news business.”

“It may not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen regularly. Two days ago, the AP got caught sending out a crudely—and nonsensically—altered photo of an Alaskan oil pipeline worker; last month, the Charlotte Observer fired a photographer for changing the color of the sky in a picture of a firefighters; the same week, the Spanish-language edition of the Miami Herald acknowledged that a picture of prostitutes in Havana had been cobbled together from two different shots; in 2003 the Los Angeles Times sacked a photographer for combining two pictures from Iraq, taken moments apart, into one. In fact, it’s beginning to look as if every major institution that prints photos has printed doctored or manipulated photos: Time and Newsweek, the New York Times and USA Today, Harvard University and Science magazine, and the 2004 Bush campaign. (There’s a good rogue’s gallery here.) Some of these were quite serious attempts to mislead the public, and some were relatively trivial, but all of them undermine the public’s trust in the reality of photographs. And so much the better, because that trust is badly misplaced.”

“What, after all, do we believe when we believe that a photograph is true? That it mimics what we would see with our own eyes, if we were standing where the camera was placed? But a camera sees quite differently: For one thing, to take only the most obvious features, photos are rectangular, whereas the human eye’s visual field is an ovoid blob. Moreover, “normal” vision is roughly equivalent to what you get from a 35 mm camera lens set somewhere between 42 mm and 50 mm zoom. Anything longer than that shows details no human eye could see; anything shorter shows an unnaturally broad vista. And cameras are notoriously crude when it comes to dynamic range: Highlights get blasted and dark areas become muddy.”

Photographer faking his own death“Perhaps, instead, we should judge a news photograph as a collection of purported facts about the world that is accurate if its claims are true and inaccurate if they’re not. But photographers make editorial decisions all the time: where to point the camera, of course, but also how to frame the shot, whether to crop and if so what, how long a shutter speed to use; and all of these can affect the facts a picture presents, without falsifying the image. And anyway, which facts are relevant? Last week the Times ran an impressive graphic showing before and after satellite photographs of a bombed Beirut neighborhood, but the “before” picture was in blooming color and the ‘after’ picture was in black and white. Many people would say that the black-and-white shot was more “realistic” because monochrome seems to offer a kind of sobriety. But of course color is closer to the facts, and even color is unreliable.”

“To make matters more complicated, news photographs are made by more hands than the photographer’s. Editors at home will sometimes crop a picture, or clean it up, and they’ll often flesh out captions, which can radically change what we think we’re looking at. Hajj’s photo of the Israeli F-16 bore a caption that said the jet was dropping missiles; in fact they were flares, but who could know that just by looking? What you see when you contemplate a news photo is what you’re told to see.”

“None of this would be especially pressing if we didn’t still believe that pictures offer up a different kind of truth than prose. But photographs are supposed to be self-validating, to be, in some profound sense, proof. Believe it? Hell, I’ve seen it done! It’s a myth, of course, and it always was, but it was an easy one to believe, especially when film was the medium. Old-fashioned analog cameras were relatively straightforward machines, and the images they made existed in a simple causal relationship to the scenes they were pointed at.”

“The switch from film to digital has made the distinction between What the Camera Saw and What the Photographer Did almost entirely moot. Even the cheapest chip-based pocket camera lets you set white balance, color effects, aspect ratio, and a dozen other parameters and automatically interpolates pixels based on its best guess as to what came through the lens; and such tweaking isn’t tampering, because the image doesn’t exist until these decisions are made.”

Needless to say, news photographers shouldn’t doctor photographs any more than reporters should make up quotes. But “doctoring” is a slippery concept, and

Civil War staged photgraphphotographic truth is an illusion. Realism is a special effect like any other, and the sooner we realize as much, the better off we’ll be; the decrees of photo editors—no post-processing!—only serve to shore up a faith in photographic evidence that was never justified to begin with. Someday we will approach each photograph we look at with the condign skepticism we bring to each story we read. In the meantime, these useful scandals remind us that we’re complacent and credulous, and that photography is rife with paradoxes, which can’t be solved with hand-waving and apologies.”

Well, what about that. Great work, Jim Lewis (whom I do not know). There are also several good comments attached to the article.

At Last

The articles quoted today in “Reality – Part 3″ and in my earlier post “Reality – Part 2″ point out the ignorance, misconceptions, naivety and disregard of the challenges of photography or truth in general. Granted we are dealing with a complex issue. Granted those with real interest and the knowledge of the subject are probably quite few.

But we show and comment on articles from Reuters, New York Times, Washington Post and Slate – all giants in their business. I find the first three articles disappointing given the stature of each paper. The Slate article is a pleasant surprise and shows the power and possibilities of great reporting. In fact, our next installment will expand on many of the subjects brought up by Mr. Jones. Barring some other exciting development in the “Reality” field.

Here are the links to the four articles: Reuters, New York Times, Washington Post and Slate. Registration my be required.

Till next time, keep searching for that elusive, perhaps non-existing “Reality”. Comment if you like,

Karl, the rumored metaphysical existentialist

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5 Responses to “On Reality – Part 3 – More on Photojournalism”

  1. JV said

    Intersting, I will comeback to read more.

  2. Background Road dark

    I am Karin, very interesting article that contained the information I was searching for in Google, thanks.

  3. […] Part 3 of this series (see below or follow this link) contained seven photographs, all except one image either staged or faked in some manner. I thought maybe you’d like some background on each of them. So here is the story of each of the photographs, noting the the accounts of each may differ – after all, we are dealing with legends: […]

  4. […] that many of us don’t really want to talk about. It all started in Part 3 of this series ( follow this link to the original Part 3 if you like) which contained seven photographs. All except one image were […]

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