Documentary photography, fact or fiction?

There is shock and horror on the net after World Press Photo announced a new contest with the provisional title of ‘creative documentary’. Evidently it would “not have rules limiting how images are produced.”

There has been a lot of controversy about manipulation of images. Steve McCurry was at the centre of much debate after it became clear that he had cleaned up some of his images. (See Petapixel) He responded to the criticism in an interview with Time.

“I’ve always let my pictures do the talking, but now I understand that people want me to describe the category into which I would put myself, and so I would say that today I am a visual storyteller,” (From: Time.com)

McCurry now says that he is a visual storyteller and not a photojournalist. I am not sure that gives him more freedom. There is the myth that persists into the 21st century, that photography is truthful and that no manipulation of images is allowed. In other words, we are stuck with a 19th century notion that photography is the objective representation of reality.

The manipulation of images is nothing new. In the Soviet Union it was common to remove people from photographs. There will be other examples of such pratices for propaganda or political ‘spin’. Even the selection of images considered to promote a more positive view of a person or product is, in effect, manipulation.

russian-pic

Photo of Nikolai Yezhov (Naval Commissar) and Stalin walking alongside the Moscow Canal. After Nikolai Yezhov fell from power, he was arrested, shot, and his image removed by the censors. [Source: Wikipedia]

I am not saying that any level of manipulation is acceptable.  Personally I limit post production to changing density, colour balance and burning and dodging that could be done with silver prints. I also remove distracting details like branches in the edge of the frame or, recently, the wing mirror of a truck in the edge of a pic.

What nobody talks about how a photographer selects, frames and decides when to press the shutter. These are the biggest decisions in the process yet they are not questioned. In the days of film there was a debate was about cropping with a fad to print the edges of the film to show that you had not cropped. The idea being that it made the image somehow more truthful. It also implies that the photographer’s view of reality is fixed when the shutter is pressed and nothing should be allowed to interfere with ‘the truth’ in the image.

Any discussion about manipulation should recognise that all documentary photography is subjective and that there is no such thing as truth.  Then we might be able to move on to more interesting debates about what motivates a photographer to choose the subject, frame it and decide when to press the shutter. Or is that all too difficult?

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