Questions surrounding objectivity
For the purposes of this discussion let us look at ‘straight’ photographs of real objects.
Does objectivity end when manipulation begins?
As a mechanical (or digital) record of a scene, a photograph should present the scene as we would expect that particular scene to look, it should be recognisable – let’s ignore poor image quality and forgive less than perfect technical capability.
What happens when the ‘scene; isn’t recognisable; does this automatically mean it’s been manipulated? Certainly, (today, in this current environment) our immediate reaction is to doubt the integrity of the image and to challenge its ‘author’. Everybody knows the regularly trotted out cliché “the camera never lies”, however, in our Smart Phone world we also know there are numerous apps available and with zero skill, minor effort and only a couple of minutes tweaking, the new image looks nothing like the original! So, why do we manipulate?
Two manipulated images spring to mind:
1. The Storybook Wolf (2010) by José Luis Rodriguez
The first because the wolf was a tame wolf as a wild animal would not naturally have jumped the gate, effectively the entire concept and execution of this image was manipulated. Whilst the image is undoubtedly a great image, the intention behind the manipulation was so the photographer could win a competition. The photographer intentionally broke the rules of the competition, resulting in his disqualification. Nobody questioned that this was a clear cut case of totally unacceptable manipulation.
2. The Death of the Muhammad and Suhaib Hijazi (2012) by Paul Hansen
The second because certain areas of the image were either lightened or darkened, thus balancing the composition and drawing the attention of the audience to the dead children. This photograph was taken by a photojournalist in the midst of a jostling crowd, under very difficult and emotionally charged circumstances. None of the image pixels were moved, nothing was added or removed. The manipulation did not materially alter the message of the image; rather it highlighted the tragic events unfolding across Gaza. Is this manipulation unacceptable? Was the manipulated image, the way the photographer actually saw the scene, but because of circumstance he was unable to accurately capture the situation?
Does circumstance thwart objectivity?
There was controversy over a photograph of ‘Brad and Angelina’ sunbathing together on the beach – the couple were sunbathing on the same beach, just not at the same time; or at least not at the same the image was needed for the magazine; thus a composite image was created. It is hardly a stretch of the imagination that they would sunbathe together and it’s difficult to read any malicious intention into the behaviour of the magazine. Nonetheless, this can hardly be considered as objective journalism – there was clearly a belief that the pair must be seen together to make the magazine layout to work; it may even have been something seemingly unrelated, for example, the advert positioned on the facing page…
If objectivity is truth and manipulation is fakery, can they legitimately co-habit?
Paintings, whilst they may be hyper-realistic and may re-present the object/scene faithfully, have never been tasked with telling the truth. It is universally accepted that painters paint from their imagination, regardless of what they see in front of themselves, the resultant composition is what fits the painters’ vision of their paintings. The removal of extraneous elements such as, pillars, statues, trees, people, the list is endless and is a testament to this fact.
It is much easier for a photographer to execute his vision within a controlled environment, i.e. a studio. To clarify, ‘the studio’ is not limited to a physical room; it could be anywhere, the limitation of this ‘space’ is defined by its ability of the space to deliver the photographer’s vision. ‘Studio’ photography because of its very nature, allows for the isolation and/or removal of the object from its normal context, this functionality moves studio photography into the realms of abstract art. Gregory Crewdson has successfully taken ‘studio photography’ to a whole new level.
On a much more conservative scale, it is perfectly normal today to see a family portrait where the people are stacked one on top of another and floating in a white void – we know that this cannot physically be the case, but we accept the image because we recognise the object, as well as appreciating the objective (or purpose) of the image – in this particular scenario, we are willing to suspend-our-disbelief!
Therefore, does an abstraction need to be 'total' to deliver acceptable fantasy? Have these scenarios enabled us to create an acceptable environment of objective un-reality?
If this is the case, then the format of the presentation (of the image) to the audience is critical in terms of ensuring that the audience believe in its objectivity and authenticity. Not only but also, the same rules of total abstraction must apply to the subject matter of the image. In other words, as long as the photographer can legitimately link different abstracted elements together, there is no reason why the audience should question the objectivity of any particular image or part thereof.
Back to Crewdson, the planning and preparation required, right down to the minutest detail, is unbelievable just to create a picture and this shows in the end results. It looks like Crewdson has taken his photographs on a film set, they are just too ‘big’ to be normal photographs – but that’s the objective. Like any film, regardless of it being based on a true story, we accept that the director has taken ‘liberties’ and been selective in terms of inclusions and exclusions; these decisions rather than detract from the film normally enhance the plot and add to the pace. Crewdson, like any film director, takes liberties with reality to create his final image - we know it’s not real, but it could be.
How does the subject matter support, or not, objectivity within photography?
Atget, a pre-documentarian photographer, applied strict control over his subject matter and regularly created abstract images by taking his photographs square-on to the object. This format ensured that his audience focused only on the subject captured within the frame, rather than pondering upon what was happening outside the frame. Regardless of the abstract style of Atget’s work, his photographic record of old Paris defines him as one of the greatest urbanist historians of all time and offers a truly objective view of the bygone days of the city.
On the other hand the documentary projects of Bloomberg and Chanarin are often seen as deliberately and unnecessarily confrontational, a specific example being “The Day Nobody Died”. Their work is undoubtedly very conceptual, but no audience should be asked or expected to suspend-their-disbelief this far! This type of project and these photographs are not objective, nor can they legitimately be referred to as documentary.
Is part of our dilemma with regards objectivity, the fact that we have been conditioned to expect perfect images?
Paraphrasing Freud, the beauty of any fantasy is knowing full well that it is indeed fantasy. The reality of a camera is that it records what is in frame – all the bits painters selectivity omit; all the things that photographers have happily, historically used Photoshop (and the like) to remove after the event.
It is generally accepted that image manipulation tools have been greatly over utilised, often without much thought to the consequences and regularly inappropriately – with the intent to mislead. As a result it is hardly surprising that our audiences are sceptical of photography - the people and the practice. Nor is it surprising that we find ourselves in an environment that overzealously applies the prohibition of the publication of any “inaccurate, misleading or distorted material including pictures”.
This phrase is vague enough to be applied to all forms of manipulation. Historically, the removal of litter and poles sticking out of heads; the straightening of horizons; adjustments to levels and curves; cropping to define the focus and finally sharpening were acceptable – even required. Now depending in the interpretation of the rules, they can all be considered unacceptable. In most cases, if the photographer had had the opportunity these ‘local difficulties’ would have been illuminated at the time, but often the one image may turn out to be the only image and the best needs to made of the situation.
The human eye if fundamentally more capable than any camera in terms of managing dynamic range, high or low light situations and ‘mentally’ filtering out colour casts (e.g. orange from SONS or green from fluorescents or both). Rather than using filters on the front of the camera in the days of film; today, this type of correction is managed in post-production. Does this have a bearing on objectivity or on the professionalism of the photographer; and the editor if the image is subsequently published? Why submit/publish an image with distorted colour when it’s easy enough to correct?
Is our challenge regarding objectivity, the way in which photographs are presented?
Glamour - a spotty face versus a beautifully air-brushed face – we know everybody get spots; we know that models don’t have perfect complexions; we understand that it’s a marketing company selling us a dream; and we knowingly and intentionally buy into that dream. Back to Freud and wanting to believe in the fantasy. Is part of our “expose-culture” because we spend so much time trying and failing to live that dream, it’s important for us to know that the celebrities who have allegedly achieved the dream have the same flaws as us? Are the exposes our ultimate and ruthless need for objectivity, our need to break out of the dream and return to reality?
Famine – colour images showing proud, confident people capable of looking after themselves; an ideal and morally appropriate investment opportunity? Regardless of how bad the situation is, the images cast a positive light on the situation to ensure that the donations continue – after all there is little point in investing in a hopeless cause. Would objectivity in this particular situation be in direct conflict to the objective of the charities?
War – if your audience is too far removed from the situation; if they have no usable experience to be able to take on board and understand the gravitas of the situation, is clinical objectivity the only effective method of communicating the reality? When censorship of the news is widespread, how can any communication objective?