03 December 2009

Truth in Advertising? Truth in Photojournalism?

In The New York Times today is this story prompted by a bill before the French Parliament that would require labeling of any advertising photograph that has been retouched. It reminded me of this recent note at PDN Pulse (via the inimitable Jörg Colberg) calling attention to the following new rule promulgated by the folks World Press Photo for all images entered into their annual contest:
"The content of an image must not be altered. Only retouching which conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards and may at its discretion request the original, unretouched file as recorded by the camera or an untoned scan of the negative or slide."
Is there a plausible notion of truth lurking here somewhere? Or is it a notion of honesty? Or, is it perhaps something else? Are we worried about manipulation? Are we looking as images a representation or as communication or . . .? The standards are different depending on your answer but, regardless, are dictated by the aims of the photographer and those who take up her work and use it for their own, sometimes quite different purposes. In any case, would Evans's or Lange's images have passed muster under the new rules and proposed law? They weren't 'retouched' (much) but both were posed or arranged. In short, there are all sorts of theoretical issues lurking behind photographic practice. And, to be frank, most critics and photographers and curators and industry or art-world types are clueless about them. Why stop to figure out just what is worrisome about the new rules and proposed laws when you can simply express indignation or outrage?

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Blogger Mauro Thon Giudici said...

Just a brief citation from John Berger's "Another way of telling" that I'm reading and seems to fit well:

"Public photography has remained the child of the hopes of positivism. Orphaned -- because these hopes are now dead -- it has been adopted by the opportunism of corporate capitalism. It seems likely that the denial of the innate ambiguity of the photograph is closely connected with the denial of the social function of subjectivity"

05 December, 2009 04:39  
Blogger Tom White said...

There are standards, but they are fluid and there exists a huge grey are between what is acceptable and when... As I tell students of photojournalism and documentary practice - you are supposed to be searching for a notion of truth (and I also tell them to take that phrase with a pinch of salt) and that the idea is that you want the viewer to believe in what you say. If there is cause to doubt the veracity of what you are reporting then there is a problem for you as a journalist. It comes down to the responsibility of the photographer to understand the ethics of what they are doing and use their common sense and best judgement.

05 December, 2009 14:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must be a philistine because the only thing I'm really interested in when it comes to photography is aesthetics. If a photographer's work fails to engage me on an emotional level, I don't care about anything else pertaining to the images.

Ironically, I find a lot of war photography incredibly beautiful and poetic. (Perverse, huh?) I generally lean towards art and literature that evokes pathos and delves into the human condition. War photography satisfies just that.

As far as truth is concerned, I say who cares. First of all, what the hell is truth? Second of all, since when has "truth" become a standard to judge a work of visual art? This is pure stupidity.

It's kind of amazing that this kind of nonsense is what the French Parliament concerns itself with. Surely there are more important bills they can work on!

05 December, 2009 16:21  

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