The case of the evident modification in the prints by McCurry exposed at an exhibit in Italy had created a big debate online between photographers.
I don’t know McCurry and I’m not evaluating his work or his “right” to do what he wants with his pictures. I want to be more general and answer to the questions posed by the recent debate about his modifications.
The article that made me write is the recent article by Alex Cooke I read on Fstoppers.
Alex Cooke arrives at the point to tell there is not the truth and using a physicist like Richard Feynman as “master at deconstructing the idea of the absolute” to confirm his relativism, an interpretation of Feynman absolutely absurd and wrong since in the posted video Feynman does exactly the opposite: he simply state that to explain a truth you must keep at the level the audience can understand, not that there are no absolutes. The electric force is an absolute!
To get back to photography we must first of all understand that the relativism is a wrong concept, in communication and in life. The truth exists and the only problem, eventually, is the limited view of the photographer.
To modify the reality and so the truth or the absolute represented in a picture is, in my opinion, a moral problem of the photographer, based on his own values and moral code.
As always in the modern society people is trying to find rules, defined by some entities as Associated Press, the government or others, to establish what is right and wrong and where is the limit of the image manipulation, as it was possible to find a set of rules valid for every situation and every photographer.
The key is to find your own limit and be coherent with it, accept the moral judgment by the viewers and be ready to defend your position openly.
My personal view is that all depends on the goals you set up for the concepts you want to communicate in your pictures. To explain it let’s do some examples.
Pallywood (Palestinian Hollywood) is famous as a propaganda machine, there are a lot of examples online of pictures modified or staged to promote lies and a war propaganda. This is evidently immoral and wrong and is what honest reporters try to avoid and fight. There is no doubt about it. It’s simply a way to sell a lie as truth.
We have some examples that are more difficult to value.
If you are a landscape photographer and retouch a trashcan from a Grand Canyon scene is that right or wrong? The answer depends from the goal of the photographer. Is the photographer promoting the place for a travel magazine? Taking the pictures as art? Doing a documentary about the National Parks? Campaigning for the chief responsible for the trashcan positions?
In the different cases the moral value of a simply retouch is different. Somebody can think that a modification is always wrong, others that is always allowed. I think that the question is: why you altered the reality?
A guide to understand your direction is to value if the modification is altering the message expressed by the scene. But to do that people must stop to think all is relative and start to accept that reality exist.
In our age most of the life is online and we can choose and create the reality we want, we can take off the trashcan from our virtual world and all will change for better.
But deleting the trashcan from a picture does not change the real absolute fact that at the left of the third bench from left, in front of the Grand Canyon there is a stinking trashcan. To escape the reality does not work in the real world but only in a virtual world. Photographers have to accept it and learn how to deal with it. We have to consider also the consequences of our retouching. To delete the trashcan on pictures will show a non existent perfect point of view on that landscape and will never stimulate the person in charge to remove the real trashcan and improve the world.
In 2014 I was in Florence and I was disgusted by all the stinking trash bags on the streets at night thanks to the new system for the garbage collection. Most of the photographers simply avoid them or retouch them in post production. Still people think is beautiful to walk at night in Florence, the reality is that Florence in the evening became a stinking dump… but there is post production so who cares? No need to make some enemy in the Florence municipality and show the reality!
When reporters used film in their cameras the manipulation was much more difficult and usually limited by the point of view. Manipulation was still possible with the choice of light, lens etc. and the difference between the best reporters and the worse was simply the moral values used by them. If you are on a war zone probably you are on one of the two sides or you get killed in the middle. Also if you take pictures from one side you are communicating the truth if you accept and state the fact you have a partial view. The mistake is to pretend that the other side is not happening and use the images as propaganda.
It can be the truth to say that 4 people were killed by a missile in one side and show the pictures, but it becomes a lie if you do not accept the fact and tell that the same missile was in answer to 40 rockets that killed 50 people. This makes the difference, and the decision is based on the honesty of the reporter.
Now Cuba is trendy and a lot of photographers go to Cuba to take pictures, as MacCurry did in the image that created the debate. I have no idea what is the message and the position of McCurry about Cuba but if I have to attach a judgment about the image manipulations, before to do it I need to know if the pictures and the author communicated not only the beauty, representing Cuba as a paradise, but also the fact that Cuba is a bloody dictatorship where people starve and are not even allowed to leave the country.
I do not know what was removed from the picture but I see a big difference between removing a pole or a soldier controlling the streets.
To simply affirm that improving the composition is not so wrong you must know the goal of the “improvement”.
Yesterday night I was watching a beautiful documentary on the Swiss television about the use of images in the nazi regime in the 1930s. A photographer was sent to the Jews ghetto in Warszawa and he portrayed the smiles of the kids with their mothers, the kids happily playing in the streets, some men laughing at a joke having a drink and so on. The point of view were always limiting the surrounding of the scene and there was not visible presence of fences and german soldiers. The photographer demonstrated the happy life in the ghetto.
Was it true that there were kids smiling and happy moments in the Warszawa ghetto? Absolutely yes. Was the truth that the ghetto was an happy place instead of one of the most terrible crime committed? Absolutely not!
If we see an exhibit about the Warszawa ghetto it can be positive to show that the human power helps to survive in the most terrible situation and still have a very rare smile, but this cannot be shown to pretend that reality was in some way positive.
With all the pictures we take the problem is the same: to have moral values and follow them instead to be prostitutes for the regime in charge.
Some people see a difference between journalistic photography and fine art and use this to justify the manipulations, but also a fine art exhibits can be used to promote a lie as a propaganda. It all depends on the global message the photographer will communicate. The Soviet Union is the perfect example of the propagandist use of art.
In the last elections in Italy, a lot of time ago (sigh!), an image from a friend of mine was refused by a newspaper because it was modified. The leader of one party, I do not remember who he was or on what side, was speaking, my friend took a picture of him and out of focus in the background there was a man evidently sneezing with an ugly expression on his face. He deleted it and the picture was refused for the same rule that refused another picture taken from someone else where the photographer eliminated a guy in the background, but in that case the person was screaming and showing his finger to the politician.
This is an example to show how the same act can have a total different moral value. A person sneezing while a politician is speaking does not add information about the reality of the moment, a person showing the middle finger or simply yawn can be very important to define the moment.
All this to say that in photography we must know:
– truth and absolute exist (every time someone tells me the absolutes do not exist I have the temptation to stamp my knee in his balls and ask if that was relative…)
– we have a limited view on the reality and we must be open to admit it
– we can interpret and modify the reality
– the only way to manage our freedom, as interpreters, are our moral values
I’m actually very tired of relativism to justify the wrong acts of some people, and I’m very tired to see physicists manipulated to defend the relativism. The fact that physic theories to be true must be questioned is the base of the science, if you cannot debate a theory than is religion. This does not mean that there is not an absolute truth in physics but simply that to arrive at the truth you must be open to change the theory if new evidences contesting it comes out. Try to think there is no truth in physics and run your car at 100 miles per hour in a concrete wall, you will be surprised how absolute is the truth!
If we want to talk about McCurry we can do it, but the question is what he expressed, what are his goals and his values. If we do not know it (as my case) the only thing we can talk about is how (surprisingly) bad was technically that Photoshop work.
The most important aspect is to have the courage to have ideas and to value other people ideas. We are stuck in a false politically correct world where words as “discrimination” are considered an absolute (yes absolutes are accepted when useful for propaganda) evil. In reality the discrimination based on the moral values is essential to live in a better world. We must be able to discriminate between honest people and liars, good or bad intent etc.
A photograph is at the end a way to communicate a message, not different from a phone, you have to choose how to use it and attach a different moral value to a friend calling to chat or a pervert calling with other intentions than a chat.
With the diffused relativism we are not able to decide how to use our photography skills or to judge how the others are using theirs.
We must have moral values to be able to build a professional ethic code. We cannot build an ethic code based only on a general rule that prohibit or allow some manipulation of the images.