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.

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