The photographer as philosopher, part two

Continued from part one.

Even though these articles might have differing substance to the images, it’s the images that people are drawn to because they contain information that comes in a much more easily digestible form than words; you can look at an image for a few seconds to understand what’s going on, but you can’t do the same with a two-thousand word article. Our brains are just hardwired that way; predators in the jungle didn’t write essays about why they were dangerous; they just looked scary. This dissonance itself is quite dangerous: an increasingly frequent trend I’ve noticed recently is that the pictures don’t always match the words; whether this is laziness on the part of the editor or lack of choice remains unclear; but there’s definitely a growing disparity betweens what the words say, and what the images say – or at least the impression they give. Logically, one would think that the overall message should be consistent: if you’re going for a particular angle, then the images should support the story; if no suitable images can be found, then the angle and story should be altered slightly so that at least the complete article is self-consistent.

I bet many of you saw the opening image in part one and wondered how on earth it related to the title; it’s an example of the dissonance. I’m even more certain that in a few months, one of three things will happen:
1. You’ll remember the article because of the example dissonance between images and words;
2. You’ll remember the pretty bokeh and forget the article;
3. You’ll remember neither.

There’s a reason why hard-hitting and impactful articles have strong images that make us uncomfortable: this is what gets attention, it’s what people remember, and it’s certainly going to have a longer-lasting impact than a bunch of words on a page.

_7037081bw copy
Which image are you more likely to remember: the flower image in part 1, or the man with the gun? The first image is simply one of shallow aesthetics; the second raises questions: who is he? Where is it? What’s the context? What’s that black frame on the left of the image? What’s the photographer trying to say with the slight motion blur? Why is he carrying a gun in the first place? One makes you think, one doesn’t. The more your brain has to work to understand an image, the more likely you (or your audience) is to remember it.

Photographers – especially photojournalists – have a responsibility to be judicious and as objective as possible when it comes to illustration of events, especially controversial ones. The problem is that whilst the photographer’s complete body of work from that event might be objective and balanced, he or she almost never has any control over what eventually gets published, let alone any changes to the editorial direction or message that might be made between pre-assignment briefing and print. This means that there’s really only one way to maximize objectivity. Firstly, the photographer has to try to have as netural an observer bias as possible – near impossible, I know – and secondly, each frame has to stand on its own, with a composition that’s strong enough to tell a story without other accompanying text or supporting images. There are different thresholds, of course, for reportage and commercial work.

Putting on my philosopher hat now: it’s the responsibility of the photographer to ensure that the presentation and impression received by the viewer matches his or her intentions. It’s the responsibility of the photojournalist to be as objective as humanly possible. Finally, it’s the responsibility of the viewer to look at things in a detached, objective, questioning way; not just to accept what gets forced in your eyes. Do your own research and make up your own mind; people don’t like to discover they’re being manipulated or controlled. I know I don’t; whilst I generally have strong points of view on most things – especially things photographic – I still welcome objective discourse (leave the personal attacks and ego at the door, please) because I know that a) things are always subjective, and b) I’ll probably be wrong sooner rather than later.

This applies equally to photography that isn’t strictly reportage. Every image is (hopefully) nothing more and nothing less than the photographer’s interpretative view of a small slice of the world; granted, there are limitations on this introduced by clients, lack of technical skill, equipment constraints, etc. Undoubtedly, society’s tolerance for the latitude of interpretation grows wider as the consequences grow smaller: nobody is really going to complain about photoshopped wedding images, or flowers of an inverse color, but you might well find that retouching crime scene evidence or adding and removing people from an image of a country leader being assassinated might be viewed quite differently.

The bottom line is that we should always be prepared to question why, and think of the consequences of our actions/ interpretations – both as a documentary/ observer, as well as an audience. Caring about the why is what makes us human. MT

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Comments

  1. Paul Stokes says:

    Just read in the Australian Financial Review. An article on Francesco Zizola. Link http://www.afr.com/p/lifestyle/life_leisure/francesco_zizola_the_camera_as_tool_uJqj1yjKSSSzQCljrcW3lM

  2. Steve Waldren says:

    Agree with the above comments, another great thought-provoking post Ming – and great comments from the rest. But here is an exception to Ming’s commentary – I’m looking at this as a professional botanist, with a Doctorate in philosophy and who regular examines candidates for PhD degrees (in fact did one this afternoon) and encourages students to think about their work philosophically. For me there is NO dissonance between the text and the flower image – the image made me reflect on botany (what species, what ecological context which is intriguingly thrown out of focus) and art philosophy (what drew Ming to this, how and why does the deliberate framing effect my response, etc). Sure the man with the gun throws up questions, but different ones: I would say more immediate, but perhaps shallower ones of the sort Ming suggests compared to the flower image. But the gunman is a subject which I guess resonates far less with me personally. Contemplating Ming’s three suggestions at the start of part 2, my thought immediately was ‘Oh yes, I remember the text but what was the image?’ Then ‘Ah yes, that flower set off the rule of thrids which made me think’ – all linked in. And carrying on wearing my botanist hat, I would strongly OBJECT to strongly false colours in a flower image as that then for me destroys a large amount of often valuable scientific information – I would use such plant portraits as documentary evidence in many ways. Of course I’m almost certainly an exception here, but my point is that there can be no general response that a photographer can elicit in a viewer, even with an image as carefully crafted as Ming’s; someone may have a completly different take on things. So yes, I’m with Tom – the flower image is far more memorable for me (italicise the last two words!).

    Interesting views and comments on colour; this also works at monochrome level – an image made on a warm-toned paper such as Record Rapid has a very different feel/impact to, say, a strongly selenium toned print on Gallerie. Showing my age there; by the way Ming, have you experimented with any selenium toning of negs?

    • Interesting viewpoint, Steve – thanks for chipping in. You bring up an important point about personal biases/ points of view: what works for one person may not work for another because we lack the back story. But differences in both photographer and viewer are a good thing, and help prevent making the world a boring place. Now, the question is: is it better to have a photograph with an open-ended interpretation that varies from viewer to viewer, or one that’s so strong it sends a universal message to all?

      As for selenium toning – I prefer palladium personally, but I’m finding these days I’d rather keep pure B&W and use a very slightly warm baryta paper instead.

  3. Paul Stokes says:

    Most of the photojournalism I grew up with was black and white. Not all but a great deal. It held a gritty starkness that really focused you on what was portrayed and I wonder if some of that has been lost in the movement to colour. Perhaps what Paul Hansen was trying to do was to engage the viewer as earlier photographers did. Certainly the use of the tricks of the trade are not new and the photographer has a serious purpose in what she/he does and sometimes a little post production goes a long way.

    Film/video plays a far greater role in reportage these days, everyone has a camera, but often the effect of that is over saturation that turns people away. Certainly I am selective about what news coverage I watch these days. Morning news or evening news it seems to run the same footage over and over again desensitising us. Good PHOTOjournalism still affects me and makes me think, unfortunately perhaps first about the photograph and then about the content. Maybe that why the gun only received a cursory examination. I wasn’t there and didn’t take the picture, maybe that’s the other reason.

    I’m sure to remember article and picture and probably the flower more than the guy with the gun, certainly the dissonance. We have become a more visually orientated generation and the days of relaxing with a good book seem like an age long past for my nieces and nephews. They would rather be doing or watching, when they aren’t studying. They are still a hardworking bunch.

    Another stimulating post. Thanks Ming.

    • I think color can be far more impactful because it’s not as detached/ abstracted as B&W: you can use color to influence the mood of the viewer if you know what you’re doing. I don’t see it used often enough, though – whether in photojournalism or other forms of photography. The funny thing of course is that it’s used so well in cinema…

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Admittedly philosophy seems to be much less popular than gear, but hey, I’m happy there are some takers :)

      • Hi MIng,

        Firstly – great subject and write up, well started, i feel you leave it purposefully open and incomplete somewhat – it may require pages and lots of ink to fully cover – still, you press the right buttons i believe and .. stop

        I cannot but agree with your comment above – color can be used and can impact the message and thus – the viewer. And this is as much as if not more than B&W. I wrote after lots of thinking about appropriateness of color and B&W – the fit for different frames / light / photography. Here. i’d like to say that the perfect reproduction of color (and light), can easily “destroy” a possibly great image, this perfection i like to call “postcard photography” .. My growing obsession with a well shot and developed Kodachrome 64 has just entered a new stage – i will eventually get there with digital. The answer for me is in the “imperfect media”, preferably shot with the perfect camera / lens, and in this way turning the ordinary into special

        Just few quick thoughts, i might eventually write something bigger in this.

        • Thanks Ilko. Yes, it’s deliberately open: I’m trying to get a discussion going because I’d very much like to hear what other serious photographers think.

          Imperfect media: don’t you think this can easily get out of hand and land up with the media/ processing dominating the image rather than the composition? Hipstagram-etc is a good example of this, or over-contrasty B&W, etc.

          Perfect reproduction: actually, this is very desirable in a studio situation where you’re in control of all of the elements of the image. You want your camera to be as transparent as possible in the process of transferring thought to image. Perhaps less so in the real world, but then again, perhaps not – I suppose it depends on how you see and how strong your compositions are.

          I believe you’re on to something overall though: there’s a reason why I’m still preferring B&W film in my Hasselblad over digital for non-controlled situations, and digital over film in the studio…

  4. Tom Liles says:

    I won’t get into it on this one [everyone cheers]; but my response today was utterly shallow:

    the second raises questions:

    In my head it went like this:

    1) Ah, guy with a gun..
    2) Nice gun…
    3) Is that a dutch FN FAL?
    4) Or a British L1A1?
    5) What is that gun?

    This said,

    Which image are you more likely to remember: the flower, or the man with the gun?

    For me it’s the flower. Not a doubt about it. Just as Roger said in part1—my Rorschasch Test?

    • Ming, what are your thoughts on this discussion: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2013/may/14/gaza-funeral-photograph-world-press

      I have a reasonably strong opinion on it, but would be more interested to hear what you have to say!

      • I think processing to change the content (add or remove things that weren’t there) is problematic, though to some extent cropping does this, as does the very act of framing. Push/ pull/ dodge/ burn/ curves etc. are nothing new: people did the same thing during the film days and nobody complained that a flash was used or it was much brighter/ darker than reality – even different display media change impressions (think colour vs B&W, for instance). I think if it makes for a more impactful presentation, why not? But one – especially a photojournalist – should be sensitive to preserve as much of the original feeling of the scene as possible for the viewer. That said, it’s impossible to be objective given that photography itself is the result of personal bias anyway. I think this image is on the border – I don’t know what the actual scene was like, but it seems a little unlikely as presented.

      • Hadn’t seen that article. Seems like cheating to me in this context.

      • This was fairly well covered by PDN and other photographic communities. The first controversy came when the ExtremeTech blog claimed the image was a faked composite, without offering any evidence beyond a gut feeling.

        http://pdnpulse.com/2013/05/no-sense-of-irony-in-hansen-fake-journalism-accusation.html

        I’m not too surprised the Guardian picked up on this story. I side with Ming on the assessment of this image, in that during the days of film dodging, burning, and many other ways of changing the end printed result were quite common. Indeed, even today there is the potential to do in-camera HDR on some compact cameras.

        The final call on the validity of this image came from World Press Photo. They examined pixel by pixel the RAW files and found nothing altered.

        It must have been difficult to maintain personal composure during that event, especially when faced with an emotional crowd and two dead children. It is a shame in our modern world that the techniques used in the photo seem to gain more attention than the fact that two children are dead.

        • It’s the detachment that makes the world scream about the processing rather than the event: it’s not happening to me, but I am seeing the processing.

          Or, it’s a good example of the processing dominating the composition…yet one more argument against overdoing things.

    • That’s interesting. I have no idea what the gun was, but personally – as the observer of the scene, not necessarily the photograph – the gun was far more jarring. I don’t remember exactly where I took the shot of the flower, but I remember exactly when/ where/ what I was doing with the shot of the gun.

  5. Agreed! Who can argue with this? I do think that many people want to be seduced and romanced; they want the ideal rather than the real. But when it comes to photojournalism, it’s imperative to bring the truth as objectively as possible. During times of war or when atrocities are being ignored, the photojournalist is the free press and the voice against the establishment. There has always been a radical necessity of photojournalism that must be preserved.

    • We see photojournalism as objective, but the photojournalist is doing a conscious edit of the story at the time of shooting – what’s included is just as important as what’s excluded. When I shot PJ, I always asked myself – what’s the story or message here? What critical elements must I have? Then it became a question of looking for them and arranging them in an aesthetically pleasing and dynamically strong way.

  6. Thoughtful and insightful; but I read this article as a story-teller. This is something “all” photographers must consider when composing their photos. A photographer needs to decide what elements deliver what kind of message to the viewer. If they are fortunate, they’ll recomose that boot or garbage bag out of the frame. Otherwise, if hte garbage bag doesn’t help the narrative and there isn’t time to re-compose – there is always photoshop.
    At first glance, the flower seems redundant, the forest gives enough context and the guy with the gun shouldn’t be competting with flower power. Upon deeper reflection, as I put on my pseudo-hippster-artist hat, the flower represents hope blossoming. That perhaps the conflict will someday end and a new beginning with grow out of that situtation.

    • I’m a complete idiot. I thought ‘flower’ was refering to that little branch sticking out of the top of the frame. The man is more memoriable because of the narrative and the story. This was compounded by the focus questions you asked about the context. It is also my bias to that style of photography.

      • Tom Liles says:

        Yeah, Ming means the photo from part1, right?

        You actually had me second guessing myself there, Jason—I clicked through for the Flickr version of the above [to check that for that branch]: Flickr is overcapacity! [I know that’s Twitter’s phrase, but anyway…] Something to do with the Terabyte bump they gave out for free??

      • Actually, I didn’t think about that – now you point it out, it’s an equally valid comment. So no need to feel like an idiot: you bring up an interesting point. Context, specificity and the details matter – especially the latter in the context of photojournalism and pictorial storytelling.

    • All good ones consider it, I think. Not everybody bothers with the story; it’s a lot of work and sometimes, there is no story; a photograph can be an aesthetically beautiful moment. Of course those images tend to be a bit one-dimensional. Sadly though, the vast majority of images are lacking even the aesthetics…hipstagram does not cure all ills.

      THe flower was an example :)

Trackbacks

  1. […] Even though these articles might have differing substance to the images, it’s the images that people are drawn to because they contain information that comes in a much more easily digestible form than words; you can look at an image for a few seconds to understand what’s going on, but you can’t do the same with a two-thousand word article. Our brains are just hardwired that way; predators in the jungle didn’t write essays about why they were dangerous; they just looked scary. This dissonance itself is quite dangerous: an increasingly frequent trend I’ve noticed recently is that the pictures don’t always match the words; whether this is laziness on the part of the editor or lack of choice remains unclear; but there’s definitely a growing disparity betweens what the words say, and what the images say – or at least the impression they give. Logically, one would think that the overall message should be consistent: if you’re going for a particular angle, then the images should support the story; if no suitable images can be found, then the angle and story should be altered slightly so that at least the complete article is self-consistent.  […]

  2. […] Even though these articles might have differing substance to the images, it’s the images that people are drawn to because they contain information that comes in a much more easily digestible form than words; you can look at an image for a few seconds to understand what’s going on, but you can’t do the same with a two-thousand word article. Our brains are just hardwired that way; predators in the jungle didn’t write essays about why they were dangerous; they just looked scary. This dissonance itself is quite dangerous: an increasingly frequent trend I’ve noticed recently is that the pictures don’t always match the words; whether this is laziness on the part of the editor or lack of choice remains unclear; but there’s definitely a growing disparity betweens what the words say, and what the images say – or at least the impression they give. Logically, one would think that the overall message should be consistent: if you’re going for a particular angle, then the images should support the story; if no suitable images can be found, then the angle and story should be altered slightly so that at least the complete article is self-consistent.  […]

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