Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Fidelity of The Image

In November 2012, press photographer Paul Hansen was in Gaza City when Israeli forces - in response to Palestinian rocket fire - bombed the city. Hansen captured this photo in an alleyway in the aftermath of the bombing. The photo shows two of the casualties of the strike being carried to their funeral by their uncles. The potent blend of fury and despair resonated with many the world over  and the image won photojournalism’s most prestigious prize - the award for World Press Photo 2013.

However, even an untrained eye can tell there is something amiss with this picture. The dramatic quality, which makes photo stand out from the crowd, makes it seem cinematic and slightly unnatural. For example the man to the left of the photograph seems to be illuminated from the side, despite being tight against a wall in a narrow alley. Journalists and some pro-Israeli bloggers accused the photographer of embellishing the photo. Some went so far as to suggest it was actually a composite of many images.

To quell the rising controversy, the jury employed a team of forensic analysts to examine the photo. By examining the shadows, and by pulling the metadata from the file, the team were able to examine how many times the photo had been altered, and through an analysis of pixel change they could see which areas of the photo specifically had been altered.

The conclusion of the jury to this was that the photo had indeed been altered, mostly filter changes and some (arguably excessive) dodging and burning, but not to the extent that the integrity of the subject matter had been compromised – the jury was given a copy of the original RAW file for comparison. Deciding to stand by the image, the jury insisted it holds entrants to the same retouching standards as news agencies – for example, AP only allow enhancements that are possible in a darkroom with film.

However, the whole episode has called the ethics of retouching photographs into question. As photography becomes more and more prevalent, many photographers have been accused of looking for ways to make their work stand out from the crowd. This, combined the ready availability of Photoshop has lead to a marked change in press photography in the past few years, a change which becomes noticeable when current winner is compared to the winner of the same award from 10 years ago.

But this practice is widespread. A Rome based firm – called 10b – claim that during the course of their their work, they can exchange up to one hundred different emails with photographers instruct them on how to work on every last detail. One example they give involves adjusting the saturation of blood, so it conforms with the viewers expectation of what blood looks like.

But how much is too much? The level of alteration a photographer can perform on his work is an important question to consider when we consider the importance of press photography in impartially recounting events. Only recently are the general public starting to become more wary of photography. Traditionally, photography was seen more as an almost scientific method of producing images which were completely faithful to reality.

But then again photographers and editors have always had other ways, to alter photos to suit their desire The very act of taking a photograph involves framing a sliver part of the world, freezing it at a certain time, and removing it from its context. 

The work of Jules Spinatsch looks at what he describes it as “the gap between what [the photographer] wants, and how the audience reads it’.

Calling into Robert Capa’s adage, “If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not close enough”, Spinatsch to maintain objectivity, you must keep your distance.
Photographing the security and military mechanisms around world summits and the ensuing protests – possibly the most politically and emotionally charged subject imaginable - he turns his back to the action, producing unpopulated, contemplative images. A counter-point to the emotive crowded type, which traditionally circulate whenever a protest occurs.

In his view, the sometimes tightly controlled, one-sided nature of photography
highlights the idea that the motivation behind the photograph is more important than the content.

If only he could give his camera to a motive-less robot, and let it do the work. Which is what he did.

His large panoramas, which are taken by an automatic rig, incrementally surveying a scene, frame by frame over the course of the day, effectively removes his input into the framing and the timing of each individual photograph. Indiscriminately taking a picture of everything, at every time, creating something that it could be argued, it closer to an honest look at the scene.

But perhaps you could achieve the same effect by not removing the photographer, but instead by exponentially increasing the number of them, which is what has been happening globally through social media? To put it into perspective, for every minute that passes, seventy-two minutes of video are uploaded to YouTube, every second 3,500 thousand photos are added to Facebook. Could these provide an impartial, penetrating view of the world around us?

This huge democratisation of photography, through camera phones and social networks makes photography an even more potent agent of social change that can transcend media-blackouts and censorship. From chemical weapons, to hospital dinners, this new phenomenon has proven its ability to seemingly expose the truth, and effect real change.

The reality is, because of its nature, the Internet provides an equal platform to all of this content, regardless of its honesty, content, or editorial oversight.

Dublin-based organization Storyful has sprung up in response to this deluge. Describing themselves as ‘the first news-agency of the social media age’ they filter online content to separate – in their words – ‘filter breaking news, trending stories and local sources from the noise of social media.” 

Acting as online sleuths, Storyful independently verifies photographs and footage that is circulating on social media. Their work involves examining the content, cross-checking usernames with local directories, and social media profiles, checking background features against with maps and satellite imagery  and conditions in the images with weather reports. Looking at their list of esteemed clients, the New York Times, Reuters The Economist and The Wall Street Journal to name a few, proves that the big names in news realize that this has potential.

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