The Subjectivity Of It All

Photojournalism remains a deeply subjective craft – the act, the craft, the technique, the entire business enterprise (from stories selected, assigned, produced, photographed, published, produced, awarded etc.) relies on a series of subjective choices and prioritization. That is, photojournalism, much like any journalism, is fundamentally a human act of exploration, investigation, articulation, documentation, explanation, argumentation, and presentation (not necessarily in that order) and carries within it, as in all human enterprises, a series of human choices, selections, eliminations and and prioritization. And hence, carries within it the fundamental characteristics of all human and humanistic knowledge and endeavors, and that as Edward Said argued:, we can:.

…acquire philosophy and knowledge, it is true, but the basic unsatisfactory fallibility of the human mind persists nonetheless. So there is always something radically incomplete, insufficient, provisional, and arguable about humanistic knowledge that…gives the whole idea of humanism a tragic flaw that is constitutive to it and cannot be removed.

(Said, Edward Humanism And Democratic Criticism, Page 11-12)

Every serious, responsible photojournalist who steps into the world to report and say something about it works to mitigate the problem of human fallibility by proceeding with a determination to report issue fairly, and to document and communicate their findings honestly, comprehensively and ethically. That is, the only thing that allows us to take any photojournalism project seriously is the belief that the reporter has carried out her task with a dedication to these principles. It is also one of the reasons why mainstream news outlets remain so critical to the process – they offer the reputation and trust that allows us to take any reporting from the field seriously.

Ironically, this is the one aspect of photojournalism that news photography and photojournalism contests do not focus on. In fact, there is a near absolute focus on the aesthetics of an image, and little or no focus on evaluating the veracity, accuracy, reliability, and rigor of a photojournalism story. Most of the controversies that emerge during the photo competition season tend to center around issues of aesthetics, as when a number of people voiced concern that Paul Hansen’s World Press Photo competition winning image was over manipulated or adjusted differently for the competition than from when it first ran in the newspaper. Each year, at the end of the major photojournalism competition season, we see a whole host of these complaints and concerns being expressed, with many people expressing outrage at the level of image processing, and adjustment in various winning images. In fact, the only reason an ethics controversy occurred this year was because of a group of bloggers and researchers directly and indirectly invovled with the story produced by Paolo Pellegrin cried foul.

Competitions like World Press Photo and POYi focus exclusively  on the aesthetics of an image, and its jury spends little or no time evaluating the veracity, significance, and nature of the story being presented. That is, the entire judging process ignores completely any and all factors that would make an image a journalistic and Press / News image! There is in fact no time allocated to any discussion that examines a photographer’s work as a piece of journalism. Instead, the focus is purely on the quality of the photograph – its aesthetics, its visual language and so on.

In perhaps the most detailed write-up of the World Press Photo judging process, the brilliant duo of Broomberg and Chanarin, who were on the 2008 WPP jury, described in great detail how the process of judging images was carried out. Some paragraphs stood out particularly clearly, for example this one where they point out that…

…caption information is not available; each image must be judged on aesthetic grounds, outside of the context for which it was created, severed from words of explanation. This is simply practical; the sheer volume of images precludes more intense scrutiny. But without names, dates, locations, or interviews with the photographers the decision making process regresses into using only formal considerations; composition, lighting and focus. At times this feels obscene. We are asked to judge whether for example a photograph of a child suffocating to death in a mudslide is sufficiently beautiful to win a prize.

Throughout the process, the only criteria is a subjective criteria: composition, lighting and focus. It is then hardly surprising that the recent Paolo Pellegrin captioning cock-up was totally missed by an institution that claims to represent the best of news photographer and photojournalism, and yet pays absolutely no attention to the journalistic context and effort involved in making it. Part of the problem comes from World Press Photo’s desperation to be seen as a ‘global event’ – inviting tens of thousands of images from anyone who can be bothered to send on. As Broomberg and Chanarin point out in the same piece as above:

Flicking through the 81,000 images originally submitted a sense of deja vu is inevitable. Again and again similar images are repeated, with only the actors and settings changing…The World Press Photo awards have been running for over 5 decades and in that time a clear procedure has evolved. It is a highly disciplined, mathematical system designed by psychologists to elicit consensus from a group of diverse, opinionated individuals. The total number of images had already been reduced to 17,000 the previous week by the first round jury. Most of the pornography and pictures of domestic cats had been removed. Our job was to reduce that number to one. Each of us clasped a voting button in the half darkness, and as the images flashed across the screen we voted anonymously to keep it in the competition or “to kill it”. …The mechanism used for voting, nine buttons connected to a central computer display was originally developed for a Dutch TV game show.

Reduced to judging on purely aesthetic grounds, the entire jury is asked to fundamentally ignore context, and method. What matters is simply the beauty of the image. There are no questions raised about 1) whom the work was produced for, 2) under what circumstances, 3) how it was actually executed, and 4) how was it used when published? That is, nothing about the newsworthiness and journalistic credibility is ever discussed in the process of judging the best news photographs and photo stories of the year. There are no questions asked about whether the work was some personal project, produced while working for a NGO, or on assignment for a corporate client, or even while working for a government or other agency. These questions do not come up, at least as far as the publicly known procedures for these competitions are concerned.

So it is not unusual that most of the concerns or controversies center around the issue of aesthetics. Often these debates are couched as issues of ethics – image manipulation being seen as a possible way to mislead the viewer by enhancing certain elements of the image, or at times complete erasing them. What these argument however ignore is that, other than when an element in an image is intentionally removed or added, an aesthetic judgement can always only be an opinion. Furthermore, most of these complaint purport to hold all photographers to a ‘standard’ which is usually some presumed ideal of ‘minimum’ or ‘acceptable’ toning and adjustment. What either of two terms means, is never clear, and they both reflect a subjective opinion usually developed by the individual based on their own experience and ideals. It is time to recognize the subjectivity of these complaints, and treat them as that, rather than pretending that any sort of ‘objective’ measure of what can be called an ‘acceptable’ level of aesthetics control.

For example, it is my opinion that Paul Hansen, as the author of the WPP winning photo, retains the right to offer his work to the public as he sees fit. Its his work, his vision, his authorship. How he perceived and shot the image is his decision. He has a responsibility to ensure that the facts of the situation where the image was made are verifiable, and true. But he has the creative freedom to prepare and present it as he sees fit. We have to remember that it is very common for photographers to go back to their images and continue to re-work them for the look and impact they intended. In fact, it could be argued that the original image that ran in the newspaper was rushed to print, and the WPP winning image is what Paul Hansen had actually shot and wanted to produce. This subjectivity was revealed in the recent piece by Graham Harrison who accused Paul Hansen of ‘significant post production’ and then quickly stating that:

Two black and white stories in Hansen’s POYi portfolio, covering the aftermath of the Utøya massacre and a women’s chain gang in Arizona, are in the documentary tradition of minimal post production.

How does Harrison know that? And why would you think that two B&W stories, most likely shot in digital color and desaturated in post-production, would have used ‘minimal post production’? To say nothing about the problem of using ‘significant’ and ‘minimal’ as any sort of criteria of measure! This is precisely where such complaints and ‘controversies’ become meaningless as the quickly deteriorate to farce with one group assuming their ‘reasonable’ is some thing of an objective measure.

Even the National Press Photographer’s Association (NPPA) can offer only this requirement as part of its ethics code for visual journalists:

Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

I have previously argued against this obsession with the aesthetics of an image, and the fact that it can never consistently be determined. That is, we know a egregious violation of color corrections when we see it, but it is difficult to place a consistent measure on it. And that this measure varies from individual to individual, and from jury to jury. Furthermore, we can never quite overcome the problem of accepting digital black and white images, as these represent a very extreme manipulation of the original images which were most likely shot in digital color.

Any attempt to create a consistent, enforceable definition of the limits of acceptable digital image color manipulation is bound to fail, or flounder on the precipice of individual opinion. And with the increasing and much celebrated use of iPhone images, the idea of being able to set some ‘standards’ of acceptable color manipulation have completely collapsed.

I realize that I will get a lot of flak for this. but there is just no way of getting around it. Those who claim they have a answer, often end up using words such as ‘acceptable’, ‘minimal’, ‘reasonable’ etc, each of which is merely an opinion. This is not to suggest that we should allow a complete free for all. Clearly there are some standards that must be adhered to, and can be objectively judged. For example, that nothing can be added, or deleted from the original frame as captured on the film frame or camera CCD. But we have to accept that color adjustments, toning and control will always be matters of subjective judgement of the photographer and of the editors working with her images.

For it is the color manipulation and the degree of toning, burning, dodging, color correction, filtering, sharpening, cropping, that continues to befuddle and confuse. As it has done so from the very inception of photography as a way of document news. We always go back to the heavily darkroom manipulated work of Eugene Smith. And looking ahead, I can’t see how this is going to change. The judgement and evaluation can be made more consistent, but it can never be made absolute.

Aesthetic judgements will always be a matter of subjective opinion, and if a group of judges are invited to oversea a competition, then we must accept their subjective judgement of what an acceptable degree of aesthetic manipulations and adjustments are. As long as they are consistent. This has always been the case, and I can’t see how it can be otherwise. Those who claim that the ‘raw’ file is somehow ‘truer’ than a manipulated file seem to ignore the fact that even the ‘raw’ file as an interpretation – in this case that of the technical engineers who designed the CCD in the first place. It is no truer, or accurate, than the file the photographer works on. It is near impossible for two people to perceive color in a strictly consistent manner and these jdugements about ‘how blue is blue’ will always remain subjective.

These are not ethical questions – manipulating a sky to a blue greater than what I may consider acceptable is not a breach of ethics, but, in my opinion, a poor judgement of color. The best I think that competitions can do is be consistent about them. They could even appoint a permanent ‘aesthetics’ jury that remains consistent from year to year, and ‘triages’ images for their adherence to a rudimentary set of aesthetic criteria. Once cleared, they are sent on forward to the main jury for further judgement. Regardless, we will have to learn to live with this subjectivity.

Returning to the point I made earlier – there is however a near absolute silence from the likes of WPP or POYi about real issues of ethics – like for example when the Italian photographer Marco Vernashi was given a series of World Press Photo awards in 2010 despite a raging controversy about his unethical methods as a journalist and a photojournalist. Or when Jodi Bieber won her World Press Photo award despite criticisms that her work was part of an orchestrated attempt to build a case for the American government’s war in Afghanistan. The fact remains that genuine questions about journalist method and ethics play no part in the evaluation of World Press Photo. In a post I wrote earlier, I argued that:

There are serious questions about journalistic integrity and ethics that need to be asked. From the kind of language that is used in reporting, to the means by which news is in fact actually gathered to how suceptible to power it has become. These are questions at the heart of the crisis that inflicts American journalism today. However, useless discussions about the extent of Photoshop manipulation or ‘set up’ images seem rather besides the point and nothing more than the grand standing of photo editors who realize that these trivialities are pretty much all that is left for them to pontificate on as the broader decisions about content and context have been taken away and handed to MBAs and advertising executives!

And these are precisely the kinds of question we are afraid of asking. And that is why I do consider Paolo Pellegrin’s WPP captioning carelessness to be a serious breach of journalistic ethics. And his refusal to simply acknowledge his mistake and accept responsibility rather bizarre. Amusingly, no one complained about Pellegrin’s ‘excessive’ post-production work on his images! But I will not say anything more about a subject that has been written about a lot already (see here, here, here, and here for some examples). But I will add that it was disappointing to see the speed at which WPP, POYI and even The New York Times lens blog ‘forgave’ and / or ‘explained’ away his rather callous interest in one of the fundamental acts that a journalist must perform: fact check, and offer only verified and carefully reviewed information. This was in sharp contrast to what happened to the photographer Zack Canepari back in 2009 when The New York Times made a public show of moral outrage at the fact that Canepari had manipulated a subject into holding a weapon. The editors were adamant that this was a sharp breach of their code of ethics and publicly denounced Canepari for his actions.

Then I criticized the editors of the newspaper for their actions, calling their reaction over-stated and the public humiliation of the photographer unnecessary given the nature of the manipulation and its general insignificance. I felt that a behind-closed-doors reprimand and warning would have sufficed for what was a minor indiscretion by a young photographer. But most importantly, I criticized the editors for not taking greater responsibility for why the photographer felt the need to manipulate subjects into creating scenarios that would result in a publishable image. Where did Canepari get the idea that a man holding a gun would make a ‘strong’ image? And I quote, from a piece I wrote back in 2009, that:

Editors (and not just photo editors, but the main editors) have significant influence in determining what kinds of pictures are made because they have a significant influence on what kinds of pictures are published. And the dirty little secret of photojournalism is that all photographers, particularly young and ambitious ones, learn quickly what editors want. All photographers want their pictures published and they, either through experience or by watching the work of others, quickly absorb and understand what kinds of pictures a certain editor is looking for and prefers to run…

Organizational cultures influence our behavior within them. We become aware, without even explicitly being told, which behaviors are awarded and which sanctioned. Young photographers shooting for the New York Times, (or other mainstream American newspapers) quickly learn how certain regions of the world need to be depicted and the kinds of images that in fact get published.

There are degrees of ‘manipulation’ of the subject that the industry accepts, and I would argue that Pellegrin ‘manipulatio’ of the subject is well within the acceptable category. He knows it, and most editors accept it. No editor of any newspaper of news magazine would question Pellegrin’s ‘arrangement’ to get the ‘gun’ shots he was looking for. In fact, as you read the words of the subject who was the focus of Pellegrin’s images you see how the photographer was working the subject into a situation where a meaningful story image could be found:

Paolo had first photographed me in my apartment with a plain white wall. He made some photographs of just Brett holding one of my pistols, which he can’t legally own in NY since he doesn’t have a NY pistol permit. Technically, he wasn’t even legally allowed to hold mine. After we were both photographed in my apartment, we went to my garage to leave for the shooting range. That’s when Paolo wanted to shoot a few more portraits of us down there. I’m assuming it was because it looked scarier down there and would go better with his story of “abandoned houses prone to become centers of drug sales and use.” As I recall, the photograph used was from when I came downstairs with my shotgun, as requested, but I think it was before he started shooting the portraits of me.

Yes, it may in fact have ‘…looked scarier down there’, and close to the kind of image Pellegin was looking for. What you have here is a photographer ‘working the situation’, trying to get the subject and the context in its proper arrangements so that the image will work for the story and for the material he is looking for. This is a fairly normal approach, and it may surprise those not working as professional photographers, but it should not. The stories don’t just unfold but are in fact ‘worked’. Pellegrin clearly moved the subjects and himself to locations where he could find images that represented ‘gun enthusiasts’ and have them in circumstances where an image that would speak to the need to document ‘gun enthusiasts’ would present itself.

This is very much part and parcel of how photographers work and some may call it ‘manipulation’ but others would consider it fairly normal practice. The photographer is not manufacturing a lie, but he is arranging a situation to find a visually compelling, articulate and relevant image. Shane is a gun owner. His home has many guns. He loves to shoot. There is a photo there with Shane, a gun enthusiast, with lots of guns around him – picture found, picture made. By the way, there is much of this in Pellegrin’s other award winning work from Gaza, where Palestinian ‘gun men’ are shown in ‘night training’, or tunnel workers are shown at work. All these photographs are ‘found’ by paying fixers, and paying the participants. Some may argue that they are arranged, but it is the access that is arranged, and the circumstances in which they will be available for the photographer to shoot them. Again, this is fairly standard practice.

The great mis-understanding about photography is that it is an objective craft. But that fact is that that photographers have assignments to complete, editorial expectations to meet, and news story guidelines to fulfill, and this is not always done based on ‘facts’ as experienced by the photographer, but on parameters defined by the editors. This is not to deny the existence of the photographer’s intelligence, judgement, critical thought and agency, but to remind us that photojournalism works in a business and publication context that determines what photographs are made, and what are published. Generally editors and photographers work very closely together to craft a story, and there is constant communication between them to ensure that all the necessary aspects of a story are covered. It is not unusual for an editor to explicitly ask for a certain image and the photographer is expected to go out and ‘get’ it.

That being said, what pins photojournalism / journalism  to something approaching ‘objective truth’ is its adherence to known and knowable facts. That what is seen in the photograph is a representation of a situation that is genuine, and can be verified by another party. That there are ‘gun enthusiasts’ in Rochester, and that they do own a lot of guns. That there are tunnels under Gaza, or men who conduct arms training in fields at night. All that being true. wow these facts are represented and shown is where the subjectivity and the creativity comes in. Just as a reporter for The New Yorker would work with these facts and transform them into a compelling thriller of an article, the photographer works with these facts to produce an aesthetically powerful photograph. The writer has her grammar, her language, her powerful writing skills, her ability to transform mere facts into near literature. The photographer has her aesthetics., and the ability to transform something into a compelling and unforgettable photograph.

The facts however, remain sacrosanct. And it is the responsibility of the photojournalist to make sure that she pursues these facts to the best of her ability, and does so ethically, comprehensively and rigorously. The subjectivity of her perspective is given credance with the help of the  pieces of information, analysis, insight and judgement that she brings to the work. It can never be objective, but it can be as comprehensive and thorough, balanced and honest so as to stand as close to an objective truth as possible.

Subjectivity in photojournalism makes us uncomfortable. I realize that some of my arguments above will annoy the purists who insist that clear, precise and objective standards for aesthetic and ethics can be set. I am not so sure. This is not an argument against standards – whether of aesthetics or of ethics, but a statement about how to think of these two issues. I think we have to accept that there are certain aspects of the craft that will always remain subjective, and others that can be reasonably seen as objective, and that it behooves us to start by being precise about differentiating between the two. But perhaps most importantly, we have to re-discover a way to hold our finest not only to high aesthetic standards, but to to excellent ethical ones as well. As aphotoeditor argued commenting on the Paolo Pellegrin controversy:

Photojournalism needs leadership. Photojournalism needs magazines, contests, blogs and photographers who lead by example and practice exceptional journalism. If there’s anything to be outraged about, it’s that one of photojournalism’s brightest stars is sloppy and thinks it’s not a big deal.

 

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