|Written by Leo Hsu|
|27 Aug 2009|
In this year: new research reopens controversy around whether Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier photograph was staged ; Klavs Bo Christensen withdraws his entry from the Danish Pictures of the Year competition after judges challenge his “excessive use of Photoshop”; The New York Times Magazine withdraws Edgar Martins’ photo essay on uncompleted housing projects because “the images did not wholly reflect the reality the images purported to show ”. Debates over the use of Photoshop have been around as long as the cloning stamp tool and the veracity of Capa’s image has been discussed for decades. But if we look at how the photojournalism industry is changing, and at the new models for visual journalism and communication that are emerging, these questions become more vital- because they are at risk of becoming less obviously relevant.
All three of these examples are telling in that they focus on the image as the document, the object that is either representing the truth or not. They focus on the legitimacy of that object and ask whether its provenance is authentic or in some important sense natural. These crises belong to a world in which published pictures are expected to live up to certain expectations. Staging a picture or editing it electronically result in the production of an image with a specific relation to the indexed events. But when this happens in a way that makes us feel betrayed, it’s not the image that we feel betrayed by, but the photographer or the publication.
We trust (or do not trust) photographers, publications, the press system, television news networks, press releases. Images in themselves do not have the capacity to be either authentic or natural. There is no technology for making pictures that is not mediated by some cultural framework through which pictures are read and written. They can only be accepted as more or less legitimate according to the terms by which they are produced and consumed. As pictures, they move through a variety of contexts and take on new values and meanings in each one. It is these contexts that give images their validity as journalistic documents.
Capa, Bo Christensen, and Martins each had a point to make, and (without making any claims about what Capa actually did- because I really don’t know-) I would venture that each felt that their actions fell within their own beliefs of what they felt was acceptable in order to get their point across. What they felt was acceptable then in some way fell foul of prevailing norms. These prevailing norms may be something as specific as the judging conventions of a contest or the public’s expectation that a magazine accurately describe the process through which pictures were created.
The question of whether an image appropriately “reflects reality” is an issue that documentary photography and photojournalism has contended with throughout their histories. This question should not be thought of as a burden, but a welcome discussion that at each historical moment helps both professionals and public to define the borders and accepted practices of these fields. Now, as we witness the dramatic transformations to the print journalism industry, these questions not only reveal how the idea of visual journalism has congealed but also indicate the kinds of issues that both photojournalism practitioners and their audiences will need to resolve in a world in which the printed periodical is no longer the favored institution through which these images are mediated.
Discussions about the end of newspapers frequently revolve around whether newspapers can be sustained and the potential and possibilities of new media forms. Newspapers have been vital to the creation of national identities and to the sustenance of democracies. When the press is gone (or radically changed), we will need to rethink how freedoms of speech and expression are given institutional validity and how public discourse will be managed.
Visual discourse is a crucial part of this. Those working within the fields and industries of visual communication are now faced with new questions. Who and what will give these expressions a regular and reliable platform from which to speak? How will the daily increasing amount of information that is produced each day be given shape so that the signal can clear the noise? What will be the basis of trust and verification for information?
Over the last fifteen years or so we have witnessed the emergence of new kinds of visual story-telling. Digital photography gave us instantaneous feedback; camera phones gave us ubiquitous photography; picture-sharing sites gave us a developing social milieu in which these instant and ubiquitous pictures could be shared. None of these factors were specifically reasons that contributed to the transformations of the print news industries, but they are part of a larger technological shift that – if not the cause of the end of newspapers- establishes the setting where mass visual communication will find its new parameters, take shape, evolve, and resolve, and, inevitably, continue to transform.
Photojournalism has never stood still and it is only as meaningful as anyone’s experience of it. Factor in generational differences, where you are in your life when you see a certain image, how the media through which you see an image shapes your understanding of it, and it’s all a moving target. Debates over how true an image is, whether it is a cheat, whether it’s (“only”) art contribute to our definition of what photojournalism can be and do today, but when we have these conversations we should keep in mind that these standards - if they were ever so truly shared and solid- will change too.
Stewart Brand observed that information wants to be free. The monetary cost of circulating information has fallen and once information is released it’s very hard to contain it again. This is one of the defining characteristics of distributed citizen journalism, as witnessed in the images that came out of Iran .
But Brand also noted that information wants to be expensive, because it is valuable. The value of information increases not only when it is controlled and withheld but also when it is given shape and purpose, when value articulates with meaning. People will use the tools at hand to make the cases they want to make and to advance their agendas. We need to keep thinking about, talking about, and acting on the changes that accompany the end of newspapers to preserve those parts of photojournalism that we value, and to create the new frameworks that will allow visual communication to fulfill what we perceive to be its potential.