Photojournalism has never been objective

_7035714bw copyNepal, 2011

At the risk of starting with fighting words, I question the objectivity and absoluteness of photojournalism as a reporting medium. I actually think the problem is not so much that photography has descended into a parody of manipulation, filters, photoshop and other things, but more that our collective societal expectations have warped what we perceive and how we perceive it. The recent move by Reuters to only accept JPEG submissions with minimal processing ‘in the interests of timeliness’ is at the beginning of my line of thought.

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Nepal, Ghurka training camp, 2011

Presumably, the real reason is to avoid any future controversy similar to what happened at two high profile competitions earlier this year, and in 2013. The World Press Photo award was revoked from Giovanni Trolio for his series ‘The Dark Heart of Europe’ after it emerged that the documentary was, shall we say, not entirely objective. The problem here revolved around the question of ‘what is documentary’? Several of the images were staged – the most controversial being the addition of a photographer-controlled light source, and others were manipulated ‘to influence atmosphere’. The question here is not so much whether the image was manipulated after the fact, but whether the image at all represents reality. Park that thought for a moment.

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Nepal under curfew, 2011

Earlier, the 2013 winner of the World Press Photo award (again) – Swedish photographer Paul Hansen – came under fire for the manipulations that he used on the Gaza funeral image. I look at it and see two things: firstly, some pretty impressive – but physically impossible – light, given the direction of the sun and unlikeliness of a potential off-camera source up and to the left of the image; but I also see some pretty skilful postprocessing work.

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Super Japan GT Asia Series, Kuala Lumpur, 2011

The problem here is again not one of addition or subtraction – the most common public perception of the verb ‘photoshopping’ – but one of representation. Trolio represented a partially staged or controlled situation as documentary; Hansen changed the presentation of reality. In both situations, the controversy comes from the assertion that neither scene would have been something that an external observer would have seen natively with their own eyes. However, nobody sees anything the same way: if a person with myopia and poor vision correction presented their view of the world as slightly out of focus and blurred, who’s to say they are wrong? Or a person with cataracts lowers contrast, or tints things yellow? Once again: who’s to say that somebody is not actually perceiving the world this way? Is there not a significant difference between creating a situation and accurately portraying that, as opposed to changing the contents afterwards to suit a different message?

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Tokyo station after Shinkansen network signal failure, 2008

And where does making local tonally adjustments sit? We are not talking about adding or removing subjects: merely dodging and burning. This has been going on since the earliest days of photography; if you cannot see something, increase exposure. What about globally changing color tone? Surely the dominant color temperature or warmth has an effect on the way the audience responds to a scene; what if you view an image on a poorly calibrated monitor, or a newspaper with a poor gamut and tonal bias because of the newsprint? What about ‘traditional’ monochrome presentation? Is that manipulation too, because the choice of medium has influenced the emotional impact of the image? I think it’s clear to see that we are starting to get into very grey territory indeed.

Put another way: french fries in a McDonald’s packet or on a fancy wooden board with different seasoning are both still fundamentally deep fried bits of potato. We may respond differently to the two, but the substance has not changed: we didn’t substitute a sweet potato or make wedges, or add or subtract the total number of fries. Why should photojournalism be any different?

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Boxing hopeful, Havana, 2014

Photography carries the expectation of being a facsimile of reality by its very literal nature: the subjects we see in an image are so easily recognisable that we do not question the translation; a photograph of a car can be taken to be a fairly accurate (if incomplete because of spatial dimensionality and size) representation of that car. In the same way, a photograph of an event is taken to be an accurate record or representation of that particular moment in time during the event. However, as Magritte reminds us in The Treachery of Images: ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’. In other words, the photograph is not and can never be a substitute for reality; it is merely a very good illusion.

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Protest, Vienna, 2011

The problem is the very act of framing and composing is already introducing bias: in an image, we can only see what the photographer chooses to show us. We cannot know somebody was present at an event if they were framed out of the image. Clearly, the compositional bias may well exclude some critical contextual information that lies outside the frame for reasons of physical impossibility, ignorance, negligence, deliberate exclusion to influence the viewer’s impression, or something else. The photograph of JFK after being shot, for instance, excludes the shooter; nor can you identify the geographic location other than through captions or historical context. The angle is fixed, so you can’t see the reactions of the people between the camera and the event.

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Tsukiji Market, Tokyo, 2015

On this basis, so long as nothing is added or subtracted afterwards from the portion of the scene we can see, it’s difficult to cry foul when the presentation is changed. Restricting photographers to submitting only JPEGs for news isn’t going to improve fidelity – it’s just going to result in lower standards. I can’t see Magnum doing that, for instance. The problem lies within our own expectations: photographs are not reality. If anything, one of the most important qualities of a photograph is that it is plausible enough for us to suspend disbelief and consider the contents of the image to be ‘real’; this leads to all sorts of interesting possibilities when we compound the ability of a photograph to make us believe spatial relationships and mood contingent on perspective and light.

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May Day parade, Havana, 2014

We could argue that it is the responsibility of the photojournalist to represent reality as closely as possible, but this quickly turns into a question of perception: what do you believe? If you can compose an image that tells that story with elements to hand that are not otherwise influenced by the photographer, then it is very difficult to say it is not ‘real’. Truth is relative, and often reported by the incumbent powers anyway. This is why I’m inclined to take every news photograph with both a grain of salt and an open-mindedness of perspective; the real question we should be asking is not ‘how much photoshop was involved’, but ‘what is the real underlying message here?’ This is the core of the issue: in our (collective general average audience) experience, a photo does mostly represent reality – and we can to some degree interpolate/ extrapolate as necessary. It is when a manipulated image or staged scene is presented as a shocking truth that problems of trust arise. Of course, no representation of anything – in any medium – can be objective since it requires processing and interpretation that is down to the perspective of the observer… MT


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  1. Thank you, Ming. Such an interesting article and wonderful accompanying photos. Most of my photography is in the documentary vein and I often grapple with the idea of what a documentary photo is. I think that excessive image manipulation after the fact is kind of cheating, but I’m not sure where the line should be drawn. In my case I take photos that use visual tricks of juxtaposition, scale, reflection and perspective. I want the photos to appear like they are Photoshopped, yet they are only made through observation with no Photoshop.They are still documentary photos, but in a sense they aren’t.
    Your photos and ideas are thought provoking. I’ll check out more of your photos and blog posts. Thanks!

    • I think it’s pretty simple. If you change the content of the subject by adding or removing something, this is a no-no. Changing the presentation so dramatically the implicit story changes – e.g. changing light direction – is borderline and probably also no, but I suppose you could also argue the same thing is achieved by cropping and completely excluding elements entirely…

  2. Such a good read! Your points are valid and really made me think about news and broadcasting in general. From a journalistic standpoint- whether it’s writing, photography, or video- nothing can be objective. I’m currently studying journalism in post secondary and it’s upsetting how many people can (and will) alter their stories in order to make them more ‘newsworthy’. But that’s just how it goes. Loved the article and your photos!

  3. Wow what a great read!

  4. The problem is also that the integrity of so many people is involved. Even without any adjustments or ‘manipulation’. Not only the photographer who chooses where to go, where to stand, which direction to point his camera and how to crop, even how and when exactly to expose. But then the editors who choose what to show, how to crop it again and in what context and what to write in the caption and accompanying article.

    • Undoubtedly this is true. However, the problems arise when the photographer has complete control of the image chain, from taking it to final presentation. This is where the issues arise with the image making processes under consideration here.

    • Backt to expectation and reality 🙂

  5. Ming, I deliberately respond without having read through the comments that already were posted. This is one of the most thought provoking blog articles that I had pleasure of reading. The World Press Photo exhibition has been coming over here in recent years and I am trying to make myself a habit of paying a visit to this exhibition each time it does happen. My impressions from what I get to see are mostly negative. It seems to me that this is what the authors intend for me – to make me feel negative.

    As you say “photographs are not reality”. Then, the notion of documentary photography would seem like almost a complete contradiction of terms. Again, having seen a few World Press Photo exhibitions, in my opinion what true artists of photography might want to consider is that in “documentary photography” term ‘documentary’ comes first and term ‘photography’ comes second. If I were doing this (I am not yet capable or might never be capable) I would put a very big sign “be real!” into my face so that whenever I am doing my editing, I first of all think of making all I can to put my viewer into the state of mind that what they see is real thing. Not edited, not controlled – this is like almost a snapshot, a quick turn of a head, a momentary thought, camera taken to the eye, shutter tripped.

    You know, for living I write software – I am a programmer. Whenever I finish writing some code, I try as much as I can to allocate time and do a self code-review. Documentary photographers would probably have to do the same – to take two steps back, to look again and to ask themselves – does it look real?

    And another issue here is that in this world, in this time, on this planet the default state of mind is that of negativity. Conflicts are everywhere, global warming is upon us, we’re running out of oil, you name it. I still think that even at World Press Photo a photograph that is showing something really happy, heart warming, that happened despite or even in spite of the surroundings, could be a really big hit. The things I remember are mostly about human suffering and misery… Maybe a slight change of motif is in order.

    With great respect.

    • I’ve not seen anything positive of late, either. I suspect it has something to do with the consumptive audience: we tend to be more interested in the negative, the sensational, the shocking. Happy news tends to ever only incite jealousy (hell, I’ve experienced it myself by other commenters on this site for various things). It seems collectively we have a fundamental problem being happy for somebody else simply because we might not be happy ourselves…and worse, this may not even be of our own doing (I suspect this repeated/reinforced cycle of negativity of the media has a lot to answer for, too).

      • > “interested in the negative, the sensational, the shocking”
        Two words (just some among many current ones) : “Donald Trump” !

        Another aspect : how the *presence of media* might influence the reality –of inducing actions for the sake of press.

        .:. Will Orwellian security cameras be the only hope?

        Btw, ca. 1977 there was a magazine that tried to focus on positive things : Quest/77 (& /78ff, ’til 1981?) But it struggled for success and then had issues w/founder & his church.


  6. Rene Delbar says:

    Hi Ming, just to throw in some more inspiration: Belgian press photographer Jimmy Kets visits Brussels in the midst of the the November 2015 terrorist scare, and demonstrates what a choice of composition can do…

    • Good example!

    • Rene, an excellent example of the point I was hoping to get across in the second paragraph of my post on 31/8. So, does a photograph lie? Well, whilst the images have not been doctored, the photographer nevertheless contrives to manipulate our thoughts and direct us to a conclusion that may not be truthful in reality. Thus he cleverly presents us with images that have been “engineered” to show something that otherwise was not the case. I say “was not the case” because the many images of Brussels under lock down and which were published in the press, definitely showed a city devoid of people when during normal times it would be a hubbub of activity.

  7. Jonathan Hodder says:

    Great article. I guess it’s possible to consider that the photographer’s attempt to capture ‘reality’ is the first challenge, while the journalist writing the accompanying text is the second challenge. Possible topic for a part II article: the relationship between photographer and writer?

  8. Another way to look at this is that there is a difference between photojournalism and forensics. In clinical photography there may be an imperative to capture an image with a high degree of standardized fidelity. Recognizing and categorizing pathology is dependent on such precision. For the crime, accident photography and evidence photography the technician must work diligently as possible to record the scene objectively and completely (which I agree is not fully possible). Medical imaging monitors are even more finely controlled than high end graphics monitors because a radiologist makes clinical decisions based on the images. In this setting, contrast and calibration can be matters of life and death.

    Alternately, we must be aware that as sophisticated as modern cameras are, and as meticulous as some photographers (Ming, I mean you here and as a compliment) may be, our tools usually afford us far less control than the cinematographer. In production there often a dedicated engineer looking at a vectorscope and other instruments to conform to established standards. The engineer uses dedicated tools to paint the camera independent of the camera operator and focus puller (of course the vision of the DP and director unify the look and feel of the work). Test cards of all stripe are used for color calibration, focus and gray scale. Where photographers might use a tethered device to monitor output on a highly produced shoot, the screen on a laptop is no where near the accuracy of a $25,000 dollar Sony production monitor. The photojournalist has to rely on whatever can be shoehorned on the back of a camera body.

    My point is that building blocks of photojournalism are not constructed to be about fidelity or accuracy or reality. It was built to capture an essence, an impression of a moment that would provide a visual record and reference to a public that would most often not be privy to first hand experience of the event. Contemporary tools have only made this inevitable distortion more easily demonstrated and appreciated. We are taught to think critically of prose from a young age. We should instill a similar criticallity of image as well.

    • “Another way to look at this is that there is a difference between photojournalism and forensics. “
      A good way of putting it, and it comes back to expectations once again: though the news-seeking public expects forensics, in reality what it wants is a subjective, curated version. Interpreting a mass of data isn’t exactly easy or fun…

      The irony of reproduction tools is at the end of the day – almost all content is consumed on far more limited devices (think social media and phones). The difference is often lost in translation…

      “It was built to capture an essence, an impression of a moment that would provide a visual record and reference to a public that would most often not be privy to first hand experience of the event. “
      This is also a very good way of putting it. But as you say: it’s of little to no value without any critical thinking to go with it.

  9. Martin Fritter says:

    There is no “objectivity.” However, there is also no “subjectivity.” There are, however, structures and cannons of practice and discourse and money about what constitutes good photojournalism. Editorial, publishing people, maybe even legal make the decisions. If these structures are not in play, it’s not photojournalism.

    There are also documentary and editorial photography, which have their own rules and standards.

    All of the above photography is done as work-for-hire or for spec.

    But there is also a kind of authorial documentary photography, where the photographer is trying to make a case for his or her own view of the world and convince the viewer of something. Salgado comes immediately to mind. He is writing non-fiction books made out of pictures. He takes the risks and reaps the rewards. He is convinced that what he has to say and show is true. But truth is not objectivity. It’s more profound.

    • I wonder if truth actually requires some degree of subjectivity since viewpoints have to be defended and logic explained…

      • No, truth is revealed or demonstrated. Also, logic is the least subjective thing of all. I’m really a formalist at heart. But photojournalism is not about these things: unless you’re Gene Smith in the Pacific or Robert Capa at Normandy. But they were geniuses – very hard to learn from.

        You should post your aerial shots on Flickr here – they’re fantastic. So beautiful. Curious about the story behind them. Do you think your work with the Hasselblad is improving? Seems so to me. Takes time to integrate new camera/lenses?

        • “You should post your aerial shots on Flickr here – they’re fantastic. So beautiful.”
          Thanks – coming in a future photoessay; they need sitting time first for curation…

          Yes, I think the H work is improving – partially from familiarity, partially because I’ve got new material to shoot (though at this point, even on Flickr, you’re seeing 6 month old material).

        • FYI, W. Eugene Smith was very, very fond of darkroom manipulations, bleaching in highlights that were not there, using masks for burning in objects that were not there in the negatives to improve his compositions or add context to them. Some of his most famous images had elements that might has well have been Photoshopped. He could not get away with such tricks now. But yes, he was a genius and did illustrate true narratives with is altered images.

  10. Dirk De Paepe says:

    Dear Ming,
    Apart of the subject of this article and in the spirit of your article “On critiques and critiquing”, I’d like to comment on the pictures that go with this article.
    I find the majority of them to be different from most of your “regular” pictures, and I have to say that I like them a lot. What do I find different about them? I’ll explain.
    The first is still (partly) “normal style”: it’s all about the magnificent frame that your chosen viewpoint offers: the spot is captivating, the composition is enthralling, the execution is outstanding. The kid in the picture ads to the story, creating a clear tension by juxtaposition. In your “other” pictures, the people are often just accessory to the subject, but here (and even more in next pictures) the persons play a bigger role: or they are essential to the subject because they part of it, or they àre àll of the subject. So what I find so great in these pictures is that it’s all about human emotion. And I truly believe that human emotion, thoughts, intentions, memories, etc… are by far the most vast, the most interesting possible subject. It offers the most “parameters” of all possible subjects, and each parameter has a by far greater “dynamic range” than the parameters of other subjects. I guess you get my metaphor.
    Some of the pictures show a “group emotion”, of which I particularly find the one in Tokyo Station to be very strong story telling. The other group pictures, of the demonstrations, are probably shot at a more compelling event, but still they are more stereotypical – more alike other pictures, shot at other demonstrations. The Station picture is pretty unique in its intensity of boredom. The variety in this one emotion (boredom) is striking. But the two pictures with only one person in it are rèàlly great. Although we can think of quite some pictures of comparable situations, the “dynamic range” of the human expression is so vast, that a real, unposed, intense expression is always unique and enthralling. And I find both of them very compelling. They continue to make me wonder about the circumstances that caused these expressions. It’s a never ending source of interest.
    When compared to most of your other pictures, I believe these to be richer, because of what I just explained. Pictures without this element of great human emotion within the subject tend to have a more sterile appeal, although I can absolutely admire their every aspect: composition, balance, exposure… But when a picture is playing in the inexhaustible field of the human expression, it more than makes up for a bit less composition, balance, exposure, like in the picture taken in the Ghurka training camp. Although, imagine that this soldier would have showed a more intense facial expression, then this would have been a worldclass shot, although there’s not much of a background here.
    Concluding: I really like this “other side” of your photography, Ming! 🙂

    • Thanks – but these were and are images for a different purpose, Dirk. The assumption here tends to be that just because I don’t show pictures of people as primary subject means that I am unable to make them. That’s not the case, as you can see here. I choose not to, or choose not to show, which isn’t the same thing. Curation again: once more, another form of subjectivity…

      • Dirk De Paepe says:

        I never thought for one moment that you weren’t able to shoot people, Ming. The subject is a choice and/or the result of a process, not an ability. I regret that more and more people find that it’s not right to shoot people. Still it’s the best photography and a tribune to humanity. IMO.

        • Not you, specifically – sorry if that wasn’t clear. 🙂 I do get plenty of flak for not doing it (or not showing it) – see the comments on the soul post, for instance…

          Yes, it’s a tribute to humanity, but only if done with respect for the subject. And the conflict I have is not necessarily wanting to hang/ see those images of people I don’t necessarily have any connection to in the longer term; this unfortunately somewhat limits the longevity of the image.

          • Dirk De Paepe says:

            Without wanting to go on commenting for ever, I feel that I still need to reply, more specifically on the “tribute to humanity” matter. I strongly believe it’s the fact that we document every possible situation, action, reaction, emotion, expression… of people, without restraint, that assures the greatest tribute. This is because thàt’s the only way to show humankind in all it’s facets, with the whole richness of its being. This means that, when people are shown in ALL possible situations, there cannot be any disrespect towards mankind. Any censorship would pauperize the image of mankind and be disrespectful by definition. But this also means that, when there is another kind of (self-)censorship, like we see in most newsmedia, as they only bring dramatic news (the news has become a “bad news” show), this equally leads to a pauperization of the image of mankind and can be called disrespectful.
            As I am extremely fascinated by mankind, I try to register everything that strikes me, when I’m shooting people, without imposing myself any form of censorship. I personally believe that thàt is the true way to go: no censorship at all! Although it’s impossible for any one photographer to cover all human aspects, by not censoring anything he will come as close as possible and contribute to the global documentation of humankind. I find myself to be fascinated with those pics, even many years after they were shot. Personally, I believe that they’ll have a much longer lifetime than photo’s that we take of near ones (having their main value just for the family), since those are almost always posed and therefore of much less value to illustrate mankind. The total of “people shots” in a country and an era can make for a precise documentation of human life there and then. Often those pictures get the more interesting as time goes by.

  11. Although manipulating digital files is easy, digital also makes it possible to have a technical solution. Verifying authenticity of a digital photograph is possible by adding encrypted digital signature in the photograph. If I remember right, both Canon and Nikon at some point provided this in their cameras. My quick google search showed only years old implementation and I could not find out what is the current state of this feature. Would you know?

    • It was dropped and never used, I think – limited use since cropping would affect it, for example, or in-camera RAW reprocessing.

    • From what I have read the DNG file format is fully authenticable, and for that reason DNGs are used for forensic applications and are admissible in court as evidence. JPEGs are not digitally verifiable in the same way, so only the most obvious manipulations are discoverable. That’s why I thought it was quite weird that Reuters claimed that one benefit of going to all JPEG format was combatting manipulation. It does exactly the opposite, making manipulation easier to conceal. Clearly whoever approved their policy change either didn’t understand the technical merits of DNGs, or like one of the three monkeys they want see no evil in their photos and metaphorically are covering up their eyes to blind them to a tool that would help them see, pretending that solves the problem.

      • I think it might be much more prosaic (and lazier) than that: you have to convert/process a DNG to go to press, you don’t with a JPEG.

        • Ming, I understand the point Steven was making. In the early years of digital imaging the British Police Service carried on using film as the original negative could be called upon to support prints submitted in Court proceedings. The print itself is not an original, so if it were ever challenged the negative would be needed. I don’t know if it was the DNG file per se, but there was certainly something that changed that brought digital imaging on a par with film for evidential purposes. Might it have been RAW files? As you point out, you can’t do anything with these until they are processed to TIFF or jpeg.

          • Raw files can be edited too; you can save changes to them by most manufacturer-proprietary software actually.

            • But would those edits be obvious upon forensic inspection, Ming? There must be some way of measuring if an original digital file has been amended, isn’t there?

              • Depends how good the editor is. Hard to say…and no, there may not be any way to tell since even the saving process could cause changes…

                • Jayant Mahto says:

                  DNG is simply a format to store raw data. There is no inherent security feature in it.

                  It beats me why no camera manufacturer is working on creating a secure file which can be verified for any manipulation.

                  • Probably because the market is limited, and it isn’t an overt feature that’ll sell to the consumer masses who buy most of the gear these days…simple business decision. Of course, one could also argue that you can’t buy something that doesn’t exist…

  12. Paul Farrington says: is a great example (scroll down to the photos of the hands). The photographer has clearly grabbed a moment as it happened and, either through constraints of the gear in their hands at the time, position relative to subject, or whatever else it may be, has been unable to isolate what they wanted to at the point of capture so they have cropped the photo after the fact and removed the erroneous foot. For me this raises at least three interesting points/questions which I would think agree with the gist of your post – a) was the photographer so focused on the hands being wrapped that they were not even conscious of the foot at the time, and if so, is it not more honest for them to remove the foot from the picture even though it was (objectively) there, as it did not form part of their (subjective) experience of the event; is it inauthentic to leave it in? b) although not the reason for disqualification from that competition, many have questioned the credibility of the picture due to the crop; had the photographer cropped at the time of capture, should this be considered any more valid, allowing for the aforementioned constraints, and if so, why, when the moment itself has not changed? and c) would the picture actually be any less credible had he changed his position, thrown on a short telephoto and asked them to do it again? If it would, how does that compare to him changing his position, throwing on a short telephoto and photographing the same picture because they didn’t do it right the first time and therefore did it again anyway?

    I have to say I agree that photojournalism is not objective. In fact I’d argue it’s a tautology because everyone’s experience of the external world is subjective. Given all that we know about manipulating the content of an image through focal length, perspective, DOF etc., and the selective cropping either before or after capture in which many engage I find it hard to see how anyone with even passing experience of photography believes a picture they’re looking at is an objective reality; as you say, Ming, it’s the Treachery of Images – ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’.

    A classic example of subjective photography, and very interesting, I would think, to anyone who hasn’t seen it, is Newman’s portrait of Alfried Krupp ( where the photographer intentionally used a wide-angle lens and unflattering lighting on daylight film to tell the story he wanted to. Granted, it’s a staged portrait rather than reportage.

    • I don’t think cropping is dishonest: we have to do that when we frame, anyway. It is merely the difference between inclusion/exclusion before and after the fact. Removing something in post is something else entirely, though – and I think this remains independent of say, what perspective we choose to emphasise foreground vs background (another form of bias).

  13. Praneeth Raj Singh says:

    Interesting article Ming. This is a discussion that will and I think should continue on endlessly as the line of acceptability is constantly shifting.

    I think very few people, even photographer who started with digital, much less your average audience realize how much ‘post’ was possible with film. Magnum Contact Sheets was an eye opening book for me in that regard. This is an education problem that’s not so easy to fix.

    Compound this with the subjectivity in media of all sorts, no wonder things get very tricky very fast. Teju Cole’s recent criticism of McCurry’s work in India comes to mind. If the majority of the audience is reading work similar to Cole (which is not even in the same continent of unbiased, much less postcode), then they have pre-conceived notions. And these notions are being challenged every time an issue like the World Press Awards pops up.

    Long story short, I doubt there will be any sort of consensus on this, even a simple majority. More likely than not, it will be the powers that be in each situation (like Reuters for example) that will make a call and most of us will end up adopting it, willingly or otherwise, for that scenario. Until the powers change or are challenged and new standards are implemented.

    But definitely good food for thought.

    • It was much harder to do with film, so most of the time – people didn’t bother, I think. And that expectation of non-tampering was a fair one.

      I can’t help but feel that a lot of stuff simply isn’t worth looking at because the intention and ethics are no longer clear – and because of that, it gets no audience at all.

      • Hi Ming.

        I don’t think that photos were less tampered in the past – there were significantly less people photographing at all might distort the perception here. In addition, almost nobody what qualified to detect image manipulation, and public media didn’t exist to the extent known today to discuss such topic.

        This link (“Photo tampering throughout history”): is pretty revealing in that regard, I think.

        In my opinion, altering a found situation on purpose is not acceptable in photojournalism. There are of course a lot of decisions which are unavoidable (most importantly focal length and point of view) a photographer has to take, which have direct impact on the resulting image. High standards regarding ethical behaviour are hard to define, but IMHO essential to retain a certain level of credibility.

        Best regards

        • Bit of both, probably: fewer people doing it, fewer people shooting, fewer people able to tell because post processing was less known/understood, and probably easier to get away with because of the limits of both capture and report mediums in ‘good enough to be convincing’ 🙂

          Perhaps the way to see this is from the standpoint of intentional deception: are the biases in composition and interpretation a result of preference, or malice?

  14. Actually this whole discussion boils down to an old philosophical topic called epistemology ; how do we obtain knowledge, what is truth and how do we justify. In this context i would argue that there is a misconception about what photojournalism does. In my mind photojournalism does not document reality, although it does document the point of view of the photographer. Furthermore i would argue that there is a difference between documentation and manipulation; first being a subjective representation of photographers point of view, second being a representation with the intention (good or bad) to deceive the viewer about the point of view of the photographer.

    So if i make a photo with a chosen camera, lens, aperture, exposure and so forth i use techniques to document my point of view. But if i go then back home and do post. And suddenly think, well actually this photo needs that or i should remove this and so forth i start to manipulate the picture because i think my point of view (the picture) looks better, more dramatic, or whatever if re edit what i original saw.

    PS: English is not my native language, i do apologize in advance:)

    • No need to apologise, I think you hit a very important point here: “…first being a subjective representation of photographers point of view, second being a representation with the intention (good or bad) to deceive the viewer about the point of view of the photographer.”

      The disconnect in the intention and good faith is what gets us (and causes the disconnects in perception).

  15. That discussion could lead to propaganda as an art…

    • And even to a propaganda website with its own agenda, perhaps?

    • I think it always has been – think of the WW2 posters, and anything that predates photography…I’ve always found some of that art deco Soviet stuff to be actually quite attractive in an odd way.

  16. When I view an image of a landscape or flower, for example, I firstly marvel at nature then the photographer’s ability and skill in representing that in an image that appeals. At times it is easy to see that some image manipulation has been applied, be that in an Ansel Adams print, or a degree of photoshopping in a digital image. But rarely would I question these manipulations as I know I am looking at the photographer’s personal interpretation and, importantly, I never feel that I have been duped.

    However, with photojournalism, I have an, admittedly naive, expectation that the image I am viewing is a representation of the truth and has not had any cloning or staging in its production, for example. By “truth” I simply mean this is what was originally captured, it does not mean that there was some other “truth” there that the photographer could have capture, ignored, or was not aware of. The photographer can only “see” a narrow view and by the very nature of photography can not record everything around him at the same time. His “truth” is therefore selective and subjective at the point of capture, and only becomes questionable if it serves to deceive.

    Perhaps one of the most iconic war images is the raising of the American Flag atop Iwo Jima, by Jack Rosenthal. Undoubtedly a great image, but it is a fake in that the actual raising event was re-staged for more impact. Thus it was not the first flag to be raised; it was the second. The photo of the first flag to be raised is not a patch on the visual power of Rosenthal’s, but at least it is truthful to the event. The point is, if you wished to get a message across about the bravery and heroism of US soldiers, which image would one use? Importantly, would one use the first raising over the second just because it was more truthful? I very much doubt it.

    • I forgot to mention that the raising of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag on 2nd May 1945 has also been shown to be a re-enactment.

    • Ironically – it’s hard to stage a landscape, and moving trees is usually best done in PS (and obvious, because we don’t know what’s behind and the replacement texture tends to be a giveaway). With photojournalism…well, the same PS caveats apply, but I feel staging is definitely possible, and human subjects respond differently to the presence of a camera than a tree or mountain. Whether this counts as ‘influencing the outcome’ or not is something else, but relative truth is definitely a continuum. On this basis, maybe it doesn’t matter so much (as you point out with the flag raising example).

  17. for me it is about negotiating my subjectivities….

  18. Michiel953 says:

    Ming, I have to disagree here on many levels.

    You (and many commenters) seem to believe there is a “reality”, probably (in your and their eyes) an “objective” reality and that photography (as if that were an important issue, against the background of that reality) can either portray that reality faithfully (as in: true to your eyes) or unfaithfully (post processing, moving stuff around on the scene, etc etc).

    Why is all that important?

    There is no objective reality as such (well, maybe the “meter”, sealed away in Paris I believe), there is only shared subjectivity (intersubjectivity) and purely individual subjectivity.

    If there is a war going on somewhere (and there are many) we want pictures showing how awful it is, not pictures that show us that life goes on just the same. I’ve seen pictures of the war in Syria with tanks passing some tenement flats in casco state. They weren’t bombed or shelled (unless there’s a way of doing that that leaves the structure unscathed but blows away cleanly the interior of the appartments), they were just not finished. Images that raised more questions then they answered.

    We live in an era of info overload, we can pick and choose, and that info is to a large extent directed by what the target audience apparently wishes to see. Maybe that rescued suffering boy was put there for the picture; who cares? The message was forceful though probably not very effective.

    • Actually, I think you’ve misinterpreted me and we’re really in agreement. There is a reality, but it is impossible to represent other than by a sort of average: in your war example, coverage of good, bad, normal, everything – in proportion to what exists. We obviously cannot have that, but if we have enough points of view, the biases probably average out. In any case, the whole point of documentary is to make a point or tell a story – and the images must support that. That’s fine, but as observers we must be conscious that there is often a heavy bias involved. However, manipulation of images and staging are not acceptable – though even this has shades of grey…

      • Michiel953 says:

        I don’t think so. Quote: “but whether the image at all represents reality.”

        You make a distinction between “reality” (as an absolute truth?) and its depiction in a photograph, which can be faithful or less faithful.

        I don’t make that distinction. A photograph of an event is as much real(ity) as the event itself, which, in any case, can only be perceived through interpretation. There is, in other words, no reality wthout interpretation, assumptions etc.

        • No, that’s not what I meant – it’s difficult to describe, but perhaps best thought of as the difference between an arrangement that physically exists, and one that doesn’t or is staged. They’re not the same.

          • Michiel953 says:

            And they all, physically existing, physically (re)arranged, imagined, dreamt of, manipulated, earn their own level of reality.

            Back to photojournalism: the audience usually gets what it desires. There’s no dollar in the image of the ordinary citizen going about his business around the corner of the terrorist attack and yes, that happens.

            I’ll stick to realism the way I see it (t.i.c.).

    • Michael, you opened Pandora’s box regarding the meter. Ever willing to learn (more than I anticipated in this regard) I checked out the origin of metre and found this:
      Then thinking more anon, I checked out the kilogram here:

      All fascinating stuff, even though I hardly understand any of it!

      And obviously you let microsoft do your spell checking, Meter? Really? :D)

      • Sorry, I let microsoft correct Michiel!

        • Michiel953 says:

          Terry, the meter was just a random example of something we’ve all been learned or been coerced to accept as an objective and absolute truth.

          Reading up on the subject (thank you for pointing me in that direction!) proved that maybe it’s not so absolute after all… Still, it satisfies the understandable human desire to have some certainties in life.

  19. Per Kylberg says:

    Every photograph (or any other image) is subjective. Even police photo documenting a crime scene is subjective. – Maybe not in what is documented, but in what is NOT documented.
    Back to journalism: Post processing always was there, also before digital. What is important is HONESTY. That also is in the selection of what is not documented. Paul Hansen is a super photojournalist but with that award-winning photo he went too far: A funeral procession deserves more respect than that. Tasteless……
    Another problem is that the average image consumer (naively) still believes photo = true.

    • “Another problem is that the average image consumer (naively) still believes photo = true.”
      This is the core of the issue: in our (collective general average audience) experience, a photo does mostly represent reality – and we can to some degree interpolate/ extrapolate as necessary. It is when a manipulated image or staged scene is presented as a shocking truth that problems of trust arise.

      Of course, no representation of anything – in any medium – can be objective since it requires processing and interpretation that is down to the perspective of the observer…

  20. Photojournalism is about the portrayal of reality through a photographic medium. As such, any sort of photographic manipulations such as adding or taking away elements from the scene take you away from reality and into the realm of fiction. I don’t think manipulated scenes deserve to be called photos anymore; they are just artistic images imitating life.

    • What if the elements are physically moved before the image is taken, e.g. shifting a chair, or removing a discarded can? Is that still manipulation or staging? How would we know? And here the slippery slope begins…

  21. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    There’s ALWAYS a measure of change, using the medium of photography. The focal length of the lens, for instance – the distance from photographer to subject – the degree of cropping (if any) – the mere fact that everything switches to a medium relying on reflected light, which is necessarily going to be less than 100% of the light falling on the photo. Oh – forgot – over 90% of photos these days never make it to a printer !!! Anyway that’s irrelevant to Reuters, they want prints, not digital imagery.

    If it’s journalism, it should stop right there. NO Lightroom, NO Photoshop.

    But hang about a bit – what about the accompanying text? Way back when I was a teenager, one of the kids at school had an accident in his car and woke up next day, in hospital – found himself reading an account of another accident which happened at roughly the same time as his, further down the same road – there was no resemblance of course to his accident, and he found the coincidence curious. Till he reached the end of the article, where he was named as the driver! Journalism standards generally have continued to deteriorate over the years, till I often wonder if there’s any point.

    So I can’t get uptight about illustrating fantasy prose with photoshopped photos. It seems to me to provide a nice balance. It’s ALL awful.

    • Well, the internet has hammered home that if you scream loud enough, you must be right. In many ways, that’s no different to truth being told by the victors.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        History has always been written by the victors, Ming. I was told by a Professor from Milan’s great Bocconi University that if you want to learn anything about Italian history, you need to read three books – one written by someone from the right, one by someone from the left, and one from a ‘middle of the road’ author. And then go and make up your own mind what really happened.
        The same certainly applies to French history. And doubtless to other countries as well.
        It really becomes amusing when you read a history of one country that is written by someone from a totally different country. French histories of England tell you things that the English would never publish, and the same is probably true in reverse, with English histories of France. C’est la vie, c’est la guerre!

        • That sounds about right. And then you have the problem of figuring out how middle and how far left/right they have to be to balance to objectivity! 🙂

    • NO Lightroom, NO Photoshop? What if photo is under or overexposed in camera, or AWB gets it wrong? Doesn`t influence the viewer in subjective way? Like MT quoted Margittes- this is not a pipe, understood it´s a painting of pipe. This is not reality as whole, it`s a interpretation of it in a slice of time.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        The light meters in cameras produce an “average” reading, based on the assumption that your field of view approximates to a reading taken off an 18% grey card. If your field of view is “bright’, that results in underexposure and if it’s “dark” it will produce an overexposure.
        I’m old school – I use an exposure meter – a good quality external exposure meter helps you to overcome those problems.
        And I shoot RAW, most of the time. Which usually overcomes the AWB problems. I don’t think it always does (I’ve run into headwinds from time to time, on this one) – it usually does but occasionally I find it is better to flick back to shooting a JPEG & adjusting the white balance setting in the camera. Ming might be able to explain that better – I don’t have his technical expertise, but I have noticed this on odd occasions.
        That said – we’re all supposed to know how to “get it right, in cam”. Frankly, I’ve seen stuff kids have shot, and they’ve managed to get it right – if they can do it, the rest of us all need to “try harder”. Certainly I target “getting it right”. I can’t claim I always succeed 100%, but I do try to. It saves a load of time later, and makes post processing a small task. And I’d rather be doing something more useful.

        • Pete, I suspect the issue you have with white balance seeming to be better when you adjust in-camera jpeg images is you are using the camera’s own RAW to jpeg engine and not a third party editing suite doing RAW conversions. In reality, I believe that when you do any adjustments in the camera, you are still making adjustments to the camera’s initial RAW image capture, which then it converts to and saves as a jpeg in accordance with your settings, throwing away the original RAW in the process. Who knows more about their camera processing – the camera manufacturer or the third party editing suite? Just a thought.

  22. ‘This is why I’m inclined to take every news photograph with both a grain of salt and an open-mindedness of perspective…” Yes. I believe any good photojournalist aims to get at the essence of the thing presented. I would much rather see a powerful journalistic photo that (of course) only shows a slice of the event the photographer is covering, than, say, a wide-angle drone shot (or video) that arguably presents the entire scene more objectively.

    • We rely on the curation and point of view/biases of the observer – whether that necessarily agrees with our own (and our own assessment of what is pertinent and not) is another thing entirely…

  23. Dirk De Paepe says:

    I’m absolutely with you here, Ming. I’d even add: nothing in press is reality, not the photo’s, not the films, not the articles. Every journalist will give a different version of the same event. His own version. One just needs to reed different newspapers to know.
    It’s rediculous to even make a problem about changing exposure in some parts of a picture, IMO, given the fact that we see differently (and most of us more) than a camera. And on top of that: one camera and lens sees differently than the other. In short: reality is imperceivable, because it has as many versions as the nummer of times that it has been watched. So every picture, every movie, every story, every testimony is an interpretation.
    Staging is another matter, though. Because that’s an interpretation of a different event: the event of the staging itself. So a staged picture is a fantasy tale. Journalism is the interpretation of reality. It has to be about reality, but it’s still an interpretation – even when the journalist has the genuin intention to stay neutral.

    • So where does staging to change exposure sit on the continuum of misrepresentation?

      • Dirk De Paepe says:

        Staging càn be done by changing the objects in the picture, with or without the purpose of influencing the people’s behavior. There can be no objectivity in that case, IMO, since there’s no more certainty of “normal” action.
        It’s even worse, when the staging is done by informing the people that a picture will be taken, let alone when they are asked to behave in a certain way. This is anything but journalism.
        When you talk about “staging to change exposure”, I guess you refer to the Trolio picture in which the couple has sex in the back of the car. First of all, the guy was told that this was going to be “for the picture”, for sure eliminating his natural behavior. Secondly, one cannot think that the extra light will have stayed unobserved by the girl/woman, which most likely will have influenced her action as well. IMO, the documentary value of this picture is nil. Staging for exposure could only be accepted if one can be sure that there wasn’t any chance that the staging would have any influence what so ever on the action. But that’s a very hard to proove matter.
        Changing exposure in post production is a completely different matter IMO, since there for sure is no question of influence on the action. So it’s out of the question that there is any staging involved here, IMO. We can only state that post production is part of the “personal interpretation” of the authentic scene by the photographer, of course if the pp doesn’t involve any montage of different shots or “erasing” of elements, essential to the authenticity of the event.
        Since only few parameters can be manipulated in post, because there remain so many other parameters, that determine the interpretation, parameters that are not altered in post (choice of equipment, framing, timing, determining the DOF, but also education and history of the photographer that surely influences his choices…), IMO one can never state that any “setting” of any parameter (before or after the shot) will kill the documentary value, since journalism is (again IMO) per definition (since it cannot be other than) the personal interpretation by a reporter of an authentic event.
        So indeed: photojournalism has never been objective (as hasn’t any form of journalism for that matter). Like I said: it’s always a personal report of a true event.

        • Bingo – either Trolio or Gilden are a good example. I don’t think it’s hard to argue that people would respond differently without the sudden confrontation and flash in their eyes, but at the same time – I don’t think the latter argues to be PJ, either.

          As for changing exposure in post – if it’s a global thing, then it’s definitely less damaging than locally. But again, one could argue that making night look like day changes the context completely too…

          • Dirk De Paepe says:

            I have to admit that I didn’t consider drastical pp like night into day. That’s indeed another matter and I guess the only unrightfull process, since it’s no longer interpreting, but flatout misleading. It’s like erasing or adding essential elements (the sun in this case). BTW, a photographer who thinks that he can get away with that is pretty naive, since Exif shows his deception.
            We all now that our brain is constantly “post processing” what we see. We indeed need to argue that pp is necessary to make any picture match to what the photographer has really seen, thus to match (his) reality. An undeniable fact, IMO.

            • But I think that gap is getting smaller as sensor technology improves – e.g. dynamic range is starting to more closely match that of our eyes, for instance…

              • Dirk De Paepe says:

                I expect the gap to still be there for some time, certainly with non-medium format sensors. But apart from that, in journalism, often a picture needs to be taken fast, which can provoke pp. And yet the fact of interpreting remains, as I said, even when the journalist/photographer wants to achieve the utmost objectivity. I guess that, in his honest opinion, the pp can be necessary to express with the picture how he experienced the event.

  24. gnarlydognews says:

    I can only thank Adobe to popularize photo manipulation and bring a much higher degree of consciousness to the viewer to question photographic “reality” today. Before Photoshop very few will know that images could be manipulated and too often people accepted that what they saw was real, even if no manipulation was performed after the shutter was released.
    Abstraction has and always will be the simplest way to distort a story or event.
    Any photograph is false in representing reality but we have come to accept the concept that a two dimensional shrunk view of something is “real”.
    Black&white is the pinnacle of deception because very few people actually see the world in monochrome (maybe not even colorblind individuals).
    So what is real (in photography)? Nothing, really.
    But better expressed is this quote by Richard Avedon: “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”

    • You’re right: we don’t even see the world from extreme angles of view or with shallow DOF, either 🙂

      But adding and removing – as opposed to merely recording light bouncing off physical objects – is something else, especially when the image comes with the implicit implication of authentic representation.

  25. “the most controversial being the addition of a photographer-controlled light source,” I beg to differ here. A flash or external source of light used by any photographer is just a common tool used to in some way to enhance an image (not generally used to degrade the image). It may be the fact the image is “enhanced” that is controversial, though I don’t think it goes over any boundaries as far as documentary photographer is concerned.

    However light added in post production or post production changes such as what situation Steve McCurry found him self in is a different story.

    • I can see where you’re coming from, but the problem is that when you change the light, you imply there was something there as part of the original scene but in actuality wasn’t – it can be subtle, like a little fill, or it can be overpower-the-sun-in-your-face – and I think you’ll agree that these two present very different (and possibly misleading) interpretations. It’s the misleading bit that causes the breach of trust and controversy…

      • What about mary quant fashion? Something saying that presence of observer influences the observed. The scene is still original with flash of photographer. His flash merely tells of his presence.

        • Good question. Interacting with the scene changes it, if the scene is aware of the presence of the observer. No different to how everybody acts differently in the privacy of their own homes vs. when under public scrutiny…

  26. I don’t think the photojournalistic world is in denial about photographers not being objective because there’s clearly no such thing as objectivity and never can be. It’s about imposing limits on subjectivity by establishing minimal standards. Not to do so opens the door to an anything goes approach to photojournalism.

    • Agreed: it’s in defining and imposing those minimal standards that things start to get grey and sticky. Lines are nearly impossible to draw in an absolute way since each situation is different…

  27. I wonder if this is something to do with the fact that (as I understand it) photography as a career seems to be getting more and more difficult (in terms of sheer survival)? I’ve heard people suggest that when film was the only option, photographers were more respected for their work because they had to nail the shot in order to get a decent negative to work with, whereas with digital we now have so many options – histograms, ability to check your picture, in-camera hdr, etc – that it’s a lot easier to at least get in the ballpark, and with the better dynamic range of modern cameras, you have to really, really blow it to get an unusable file (I don’t know if you saw the article of the wedding photographer who deliberately underexposed a Nikon D750 shot by 5 stops and still got it looking presentable). Now this is almost certainly a generalization, but…were such prizes stripped away in the days of film? (If such prizes were given out back then)? In other words, is the technology making people lazy?

    Following that line of thought, now that there are so many cameras out there, and so many images, you have to present something genuinely different (or have a very good PA agent) to get noticed, hence (maybe) photographers feel the temptation to “modify” their pictures and hope that nobody notices. Short term ethical ambiguity for a shot at the big time?

    Concerning the “objectivity” issue, you’re probably right, in that photojournalists are people, and whatever they shoot is likely to have at least to some extent their “psychological fingerprint” on it. Newman’s portrait of Krupp springs to mind : nothing much objective about that (Newman pretty much admitted he made Krupp look evil on purpose)…but what a picture.

    You’ve probably been following the fuss over Steve McCurry, I imagine – accusations of manipulation in some of his shots. He responded by suggesting that he prefers to be seen as a (his words) visual storyteller, rather than a photojournalist. This is another thing to take into consideration – what’s the photographer trying to achieve?

    There are, as the saying goes, no answers, only interesting questions!

    • Different skill set, I think – you could ‘save’ it in PS later, but why would you want to when it’s actually easier and faster to get it right in-camera? Personally – I’d much rather not have to monkey around behind a screen, because time doing so is time I’m not making new material.

      “Short term ethical ambiguity for a shot at the big time?”
      This is a more concerning trend: be different for the sake of it; immediately attractive, but in the long run – unsustainable, since somebody else could copy you anyway.

      ” He (McCurry) responded by suggesting that he prefers to be seen as a (his words) visual storyteller, rather than a photojournalist. “
      Which is fine, except he’s presented himself as a photojournalist and in the past done nothing to refute those claims – nor have the people who’ve hired him. It’s that disconnect in integrity that’s bothering people more than the manipulation, I think.


  1. […] I think this is also the same perceptual or expected divide that separates photojournalism and the illusion of objectivity/ intention of integrity from the creative arts. The moment […]

  2. […] I think this is also the same perceptual or expected divide that separates photojournalism and the illusion of objectivity/ intention of integrity from the creative arts. The moment […]

  3. […] be repeated – but nor do you only want to be photographing vacations, birthdays and weddings. Neither is a good representation of reality. Personally, I struggled with this question for quite a while, but ultimately, I think it boils down […]

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