Photography has been able to capture in precise detail the reality of people, places or things in a way that hadn’t previously been possible in any other art form. Viewers had faith in a photograph as a true picture of something that actually existed. The photographer’s choice of framing, lighting and management of the shot taken could persuade the viewer to a particular interpretation of the final image, but in the early days most saw photography as being the truth.
Since the early days of photography picture editors were often fooled by bogus prints. The “spirit” photographs of William Mumler in the 1860s, of fantastic pictures of dead figures hovering around the living, were just crude double exposures.
With the progress of technology from analogue to digital photography, image manipulation could change the ‘truth’ of a digital photograph considerably more than before. Viewers no longer see all photography as a perfect replication of the truth, but rather an interpretation of it.
If there is a documentary aspect to a photograph, maintaining the integrity of the photo is expected and any alterations are deemed unethical. It is only when photographers present their work in a deceptive way that their professional and artistic integrity should be called into question. Adnan Hajj edited his photograph of an Israel bombing raid in Beirut in 2006 to increase the amount of smoke. He was sacked by Reuters and his collection of hundreds of images removed from their website. A picture editor was also sacked.
The 2013 World Press Photo Award winner Paul Hansen won with his photograph of a Gaza Burial. Hansen had superimposed three separately modulated versions of the one file, which gave the final digital composite a cinematic feel. Whilst he had enhanced the photograph, he retained the prize as no pixels had been added or removed.
When highlighting beauty in a photograph is the aim, altering an image to improve the aesthetics is considered acceptable. Before Photoshop and other digital manipulation techniques, many images published were a product of filters, cropping, and darkroom magic. Digital photography of celebrities in particular, provides flawless images that viewers expect. Yet we know and accept these have been created through routine post-production enhancement. When unedited photographs of our celebrities are released, showing wrinkles, moles and tiny broken veins the fans may be shocked and often demand the return of enhanced images.
Artists and journalists know the lines between reality and fabrication and enjoy the challenge of confusing their viewers and readers. Photography’s relationship with tangible reality is just being pushed further in the widespread adoption of digital editing programs.
Digital photography as truth
The concern for some photographers is that the widespread adoption of digital information technology and manipulation of images has fatally altered our belief in photography as the truth. By altering an image, they say nothing in a photograph needs to be real and cannot be trusted.
In reality, digital photography, with its integrated time signatures and GPS coordinates, has increased the veracity of photographic testimony, not destroyed it. Police wear digital cameras and citizen groups now routinely monitor the police with phone cameras. Everyone is watching everyone. This is not the reaction of a public that has lost trust in the truth of photography.