24 februar 2012

Photographs that ”lie”: A silly debate

HERE YOU SEE THE WORLD’S BEST PORTRAIT PHOTO, taken by a Danish student of photo journalism. Congratulations to Lærke Posselt who saw how there might be a story-telling potential in the way the wind was blowing Iranian-born actress Mellica Mehraban’s hair in front of her face during their 10-minute encounter. This adds so much to the picture, and at the same time, exactly what it is adding is impossible to express with words. Which is precisely why it is such a great picture.

THE WPP AND POY AWARDS came in just the right moment to swirl this portrait into a heated debate which had been ignited – for the umpteenth time – by a third contest. In January, a jury assembled to award the Danish Press Photo of the Year. Photographer Thomas Nielsen’s entries to the contest were refused because the jury decided they were leaving out important details, and therefore did not convey a correct representation of what had been in front of the camera.
When shooting the photos at Mændenes Hjem, a place for homeless men in Copenhagen, Thomas had been using a ”snoot” – a cardboard tube at the end of his flash which created a narrowly focused light on the subject. Some members of the jury keep insisting that the shadowy parts of the photos must have been further darkened in Photoshop and that the photoshopping was the main reason for denying Thomas the chance to participate.
As if that was important.
As if there was a meaningful way to define ”manipulated photos” – and to make a distinction between those and the rest … which would, in that case, have to be ”non-manipulated” photos.

ACCORDING TO DANISH EXPERTS on press photography, the restrictions on what is ”allowed” with Photoshop are even tougher internationally than in Denmark. Nevertheless, Lærke’s photo, which must have been shadowed even more than Thomas’ – it was taken in Gothersgade, Copenhagen, in broad daylight – managed to win not just one, but two international awards, and deservedly so. But how could you ever argue that this portrait has not been manipulated?

Now let us, for a little while, leave Photoshop out of the discussion. To me, the only important ”manipulation” in this photograph concerns the hair in front of Mellica’s face. That is what makes this photo great, in the sense that it adds meaning to the portrait, turning it into something more than just a rendering of the actress’ facial features.
The fact that this ”manipulation” was a joint effort between the wind and Lærke’s talent does not make the photo one bit less manipulated.
On the contrary, it is the manipulation that makes the photo true.

PHOTOGRAPHS ARE MANIPULATIONS BY NATURE. When you choose to focus on part of what you see and omit the rest, you manipulate. Whether the editing is made before or after the photo is taken, and whether it is done with a snoot, or with a scalpel and some retouching skills, or with Photoshop, is of little relevance if what you are searching for is ”the truth”.
An example which became famous but not so much because of what it omits, is Eddie Adams’ 1968 photo of the execution of a Vietcong soldier. The version to the left is the one we all remember, but the original – to the right – is much more complex and turns the story of the execution into a more nuanced one. Both stories may be ”true”, but they are not the same story.

ON THE OTHER HAND, you can ”lie” just as much with a photograph that plays by every rule of the average press photography contest, as you can by ”manipulating”, if this means adding or removing pixels or whatever was decided in some arbitrary definition.

In a couple of last year’s blogposts, I showed some examples, like Martin Bubandt’s photos of Icelandic publisher Snæbjörn Arngrímsson which portray a kind, gentle man as if he were a hybrid between Action Man and count Dracula. Just to recapitulate, here is one of Martin’s photos, to compare with what Snæbjörn looks like in real life:

AS I HAPPEN TO KNOW Snæbjörn (I even took the amateurish photo to the right), I also know for a fact that Martin’s photos are ”lying”. They give the readers of Børsen Pleasure a totally false impression of the man they were supposed to portray.
However, according to the ”rules”, they are not ”manipulated”. 
(By the way, it made me happy to see that Martin himself is well aware of the implications of his own photographic style. In one of the discussions among Danish photographers and other media people which followed the Thomas Nielsen incident, Martin Bubandt is quoted to have said: ”If I had been the photographer working at Mændenes Hjem, I would have brought my two generators and put spotlights on everything. Then you would be able to see everything going on there. But that would have been a personal style just as much as Thomas’ use of the snoot. So what’s the difference?”)

I’LL TRY TO DRAW A CONCLUSION. It is simple but it is not easy, as Danish footballer Michael Laudrup responded when journalists were wondering how his sophisticated game could look so simple:

Whether a photo tells the truth or not is partly a question of the photographer’s honesty. But most of all, it depends on his or her own ability to see what is true. Sometimes, that may take years of research and contemplation. In other cases, as in Lærke’s, it is a matter of talent and luck.
And no matter how many rules you try to establish for that, you will never succeed.

14 februar 2012

A never-ending newspaper

25 JANUARY 2012, the Danish newspaper Berlingske Tidende launched a new iPad app, accompanied by a lot of marketing buzzwords. ”The only serious challenger to the printed newspaper” and ”and ambitious app which ties together all of Berlingske in one playful and innovative universe” … those were some of the words with which the publisher presented the new app.

AMBITIOUS IS INDEED A FITTING DESCRIPTION. ”Berlingske for iPad” was developed with far more than the circ 100,000 Copenhagen newspaper in mind; the plan is to use it as a prototype for tablet apps within the entire Mecom corporation. And it was not conceived to be just the electronic version of your printed paper – it combines print and web. Throughout the day, the app is updated with news from the Berlingske website, and around midnight, the contents of the morning paper will be added to the publication.

Appealing as it may sound, this concept has a built-in conflict. The linear structure of the app, with a frontpage (actually you’ll get five different frontpages, something to which I shall come back) and a number of sections, suggests that it should be read from the beginning to the end – following the ever more prevalent tablet reading pattern: Swipe down to finish the story, swipe right to carry on to the next one. However, as stories are being swapped all the time, you will never really feel that you are ”done”. Moreover, you might lose track of which stories you have read and which ones you haven’t.

THE DESIGN DOES NOT REALLY HELP. The app presents itself as one long series of only subtly prioritized refers, consisting of a short headline plus (in most cases) a small photograph half-hidden by the headline and its shaded background. This means you’ll often have to guess what the story is about. There are no subheads to help you, no information of whether this is a news article, a column, an analysis, or whatever; nothing to signal if it is a short or a long text; and the type size of topic & date is so small only very sharp-sighted people will have a chance to read it.

In many ways, the new app feels like a beta version. News transferral from the website is pretty clunky: Lots of stories come with only a headline and a picture, or a headline and an intro. Only one line of text is allocated for captions, and as they are often longer, readers will have to imagine the last part. Bylines are blue which makes them look like links, which they are not. There is no place for comments, no social functions, and no search field.

BERLINGSKE FOR iPAD does have a number of interesting personalization options which could be the strongest reason for choosing this way to enter the Berlingske universe.
First of all, the user gets five frontpage alternatives to choose from, such as ”News overview”, ”My frontpage”, etc.
Besides that, tags can be ”plussed” if you wish to see how your favourite stories develop or if there is any news on your chosen topics (unfortunately, here’s one more feature which appears to be very beta; to make it genuinely useful, tagging will have to be done much more consistently).
Finally, you can influence the page hierarchy and, to some extent, decide which topics get top priority. To operate this, you push buttons that vibrate just like iPad icons – but which look more like the plastic buttons on a toy phone and can be dragged to the strangest places, even out of the screen.

HERE, AS WELL AS IN THE PAGE ARCHITECTURE (with navigation elements distributed across the screen in a slightly disorganized way), I miss the ”neatness” which we have learned to expect from the iPad format. On the other hand, the app is clearly a member of the Berlingske ”family”, with typography and colour quite similar to the web and print editions.

To Berlingske subscribers, access is free. New users will have to pay 299 DKK (40 euro) a month after a 30-day trial period. As the vast majority of the contents of this app comes from Berlingske’s website, the price policy might be a forewarning of a B.dk paywall in the not-so-distant future.