Photographic ‘Truth’, and does that equate to ethics?

First of all we need some definitions, since clarity of the process illustrates the issues surrounding our understanding of a photograph or photographic image that is then communicated:

 

  1. A photograph is the thoughtful interpretation of reality
  2. An image may or may not be a photograph or even photographic, and can be a gathering of thoughts that may or may not be more imaginative, or even a composite of thoughts. Ethics are involved where a photographic image misleadingly purports to be ‘true’.

 

  1. The conception of a photograph are the processes of formulating thoughts immediately prior to the point of capture, before the press of the shutter.
  2. The realisation of the photograph consists of the editing and manipulation of the final image.
  3. The communication of the photograph or photographic image is where the image is seen and given consideration by a viewer, whether in print, online, broadcast, or projected.

 

The definition of a photograph or image does not necessarily relate to the amount of creativity and interpretation of the picture – a quick snapshot is still a photograph, though may not have as much longevity when communicating to the eye of the beholder.

Purpose, and the aim of the photograph, does have importance – an image can be misused by changing intent of the communication; even a caption can alter this intent, and can undermine the ethical truism of the image.

In a previous age, many painters travelled, accumulating many thousands of images that could be used as source material. When depicting scenes the artist was able to alter perspectives and placing of elements in the painting. It is the nature of photography as its own art that has a different intent that gives the photographer more freedom but also requires a greater responsibility in the modern age.

 

All photographs are edited and to some extent manipulated. The photographer has already cropped what he sees into the frame but also from the RAW file at the initial realisation of the conception. Additinally, contrast can be adjusted, colours enhanced, changed to black and white et al. Cropping of a photograph post-capture can be acceptable, but if a caption describes a lonely single person when in truth a crowd of 30 adjacent persons was cropped out seems to be quite unacceptable.

But once elements of the photograph have been removed, cloned from within or another image the boundaries of truth have been breached. In this case, the conception of the image is no longer at the point of capture, but at the editing table pursuing a different communication. If a photographer is known to regularly manipulate in this way, reputationally he/she loses reputation for imparting an interpreted truth.

In my own work I see no problem in saturating, sharpening or otherwise enhancing the single RAW image, because this is part of the conception at the point of capture. Picture agencies, whether Alamy, Getty, Shutterstock, etc., are reliant on this inherent truth. Indeed, the whole business collapses once we tell an untruth – an awkward building or tree deleted or a person added undermines the truth of the image that the buyer requires. Where on (rare) occasions that I have cloned or merged photographs this has been OBVIOUS and I would not claim to be subsuming truth.

Techniques such as the stacking of images to gain increased depth of field in macro work or capturing star fields in astronomical work or the stitching of panoramas seem to be perfectly acceptable, since the process of conception…realisation…communication has not been usurped. Likewise the use of HDR (in effect stacking images to gain greater dynamic range) provided the effect is achieved by realising the concept at capture. HDR techniques using a single image (in effect tone mapping) are adjustments of the single RAW file, and again are the realisation of the concept at capture.

The practice of making composites is more worrying because the process itself has been undermined. Indeed, where a composite is superb the impact on truth is the more concerning if those receiving the communication are unaware that a composite has been made.

In the modern age we are almost trained to think that anything goes, and our ability to do an action is equivalent to our freedom to do that action. But freedom requires responsibility in our image creation, so that our work does not misinform. Part of the increasing distrust of published work is because we know images can be ‘photoshopped’ – I would submit that as serious photographer I should take my freedom seriously… just because it CAN be done does not mean that it SHOULD be done.

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