Photography's Struggle with Truth

for Photo Life Magazine

Over the last several years, photojournalism has seen a long string of controversies surrounding staging and manipulation in the industry. Not surprisingly, the world’s biggest publications and awards bodies have increasingly expressed their intolerance of these practices in news media but it wasn’t until recent revelations about one of photojournalism’s biggest names came to light that an age-old debate about objectivity was reignited. Photo Life spoke with a cross-section of industry professionals to understand how these recent scandals cloud deeper problems with the idea of ‘truth’ in photography.


Whether you are familiar with the name Steve McCurry or not, you are probably familiar with his photographs - or at least one of them. e green-eyed Afghan girl of National Geographic magazine’s 1985 cover is one of the most recognizable images of all time and exemplary of McCurry’s long career documenting the far reaches of the globe in vivid Kodachrome saturation. McCurry’s enormous social media following coupled with his reputation as a photojournalist makes him arguably one of the most in uential photographers of recent history and it was this iconic status that made recent discoveries of unscrupulous manipulation in his photographs a particularly tough pill to swallow. After a visual glitch was noticed in a McCurry print at a gallery in Italy earlier this year, several of his most celebrated photographs were subsequently found to have been doctored in a similar fashion and a storm of criticism erupted from his audience and peers. But while most pointed to McCurry’s transgression of journalistic integrity, the frequency of terms like ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ amongst these anti-McCurry essays prompted a more interesting discussion about the naive enshrining of truth in photography. As a number of industry professionals concur, while McCurry’s deception of his audience should be condemned, photography is an inherently subjective craft and more pressing issues concerning technology, media practice and visual tropes should lead us to question whether staging or manipulation are really causes for concern while we learn to embrace new visual storytelling techniques that will further our conception of reality.

e World Press Ideal

While the allegations against Steve McCurry shocked most of the photojournalism world, a string of events over the last 15 years has exposed the frequency of staging and manipulation within the industry. In 2003, Brian Walski was condemned for merging content from two images for a photo that found itself on page one of the LA Times, in 2006, Reuters cut all ties with photographer Adnan Hajj after he added smoke to photographs of an Israeli airstrike in Lebanon and more recently, Giovanni Trolio’s First Prize in the World Press Photo contest was retracted due to evidence of staging. But while some might like to think of these events as anomalies in an otherwise mostly reputable industry, recent ndings published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in association with the World Press Photo Foundation found otherwise when their survey of 1,556 professional news photographers indicated that a quarter of

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respondents “alter the content of images at least sometimes” along with 52% admitting to staging images with the same frequency and 12% saying they did so “at least half the time”.

According to World Press Photo managing director, Lars Boering, the actions of Steve McCurry are exemplary of what is not acceptable in photojournalism and he states that there needs to be clear rules for photojournalists that attempt to maintain accuracy in reporting. “ e controversy around Steve McCurry’s pictures involves really serious claims that many of the images were either staged or manipulated through the addition or removal or content,” says Boering. “...had any of those images been entered into our recent contest, the problems would have been easily detected and the pictures would have been excluded as a breach of the current rules.” While Boering admits that photography is an interpretive medium, he maintains that in a journalistic context, clear limits on the extent of creativity must be put in place. “Photography gives us an interpretation of the world, and we celebrate that creativity,” he says. “But when we want pictures to record and inform us of the varied events, issues, people, and viewpoints in our world, when we want pictures to function as journalistic documents, we must set limits to how pictures can be made.”

Clearly, the rules and regulations of World Press Photo strive to de ne which techniques are acceptable when attempting accuracy in visual reportage and the foundation’s prestigious annual awards has perpetuated World Press Photo’s perceived role as the industry’s authority on ethics. As Boering explains, the need for accuracy in reporting has been always been the primary criteria when awarding excellence in photojournalism. “For news of the world, people want to know whether things are as they are shown,” he says. “ is context drives the demand for accurate, veri able visual journalism, and in our photo contest we reward the best pictures that meets this demand.”

Ethics in Practice

Although World Press Photo’s high ethical standards for news photography seem ideal, it is difficult not to notice at least a hint of naivety in Boering’s idea that objects, ideas or issues communicated by photographs can be “as they are shown”. For Australian photojournalist, Adam Ferguson, while standards and ethics are an important benchmark for gauging authenticity, the previous World Press Award recipient and regular assignment photographer for the New York Times denies photography’s ability to communicate any kind of truth and points to the process of disseminating photographs, the subconscious preconceptions of photographers and the in uence of technology in making photography a medium fraught with bias. “Every photojournalist chooses to convey a story in a certain way whether they are conscious of it or not and that can be as sophisticated as a photojournalist that is closer to the art world like Martin Parr for example - that chooses a very deliberate vernacular aesthetic to make a statement,” he says. “And then you have a stringer for AP that’s been given a [Canon] 5d and isn't as deliberate about their aesthetic but actually has one simply because of the technology that they have in their hands. ”

For Ferguson, the idea of photography’s accuracy is an illusion that has been maintained by the camera’s mechanical prowess as opposed to the interpretation of painting or sculpture and it’s in this way that the deceptive nature of Steve McCurry’s techniques are really brought to light. Whether McCurry considers himself a photojournalist or not, his career as visual storyteller in the eyes of his audience has been premised upon “capturing” the far reaches of the globe - not painting it nor posing it. “ ere is still kind of a misconception that if you point a camera at something then you capture something. It’s like a photograph captures the world. And that is a false notion but it is something that gives photography a great sense of power,” says Ferguson. “It is that ability to kind of trick people to think that they’re seeing something that was caught. And that’s what makes what Steve did totally unacceptable.”

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At a time when photojournalism seems to be grappling with it’s de nition of truth yet photographs are being consumed at an unprecedented rate, the McCurry debacle reiterates an argument to delineate areas of the industry where veracity is a given. In some ways echoing the World Press Photo mantra, Jonny Weeks, photo editor of e Guardian, Australia argues that while more conceptual strands of documentary practice may embrace techniques like staging, World Press represents the benchmark to which we measure photojournalism’s only currency. Weeks draws on his experience of viewing tens of thousands of images per day when positing that controversies over manipulation can be a healthy reminder of the industry’s only source of integrity. “Of course it's entirely acceptable to create/recreate an impression of a story if your work is artistic – but I think the point here is speci cally that the World Press is not the environment for such work,” he says. “World Press is for works of undoubted, un- manipulated honesty but personally I think that controversies like this are actually a really good way for the news industry to remind itself – and others – that we have to uphold our standards. It's a way of saying 'hey, hang on a minute, don't forget what our currency is here’.”

But at a time where photography also nds itself disseminated primarily in a digital form, Weeks points to changes in protocol between the days of print and the days of the iPad that are in uencing the amount of pre-publishing scrutiny that once facilitated accuracy. “Realistically this means some photos are edited by professionals before being published, whereas some are pumped straight online without much professional input,” says Weeks. “Imagine a reporter taking an iPhone photo of a breaking news story – that pic can get tweeted, then the tweet gets embedded in a liveblog and boom it's online before it's gone through some of the more traditional controls that you'd associate with print journalism.” In an age of instantaneous reporting and citizen journalism, this fast pace of production is swaying photographers to act more quickly and perhaps, less accurately. While Weeks welcomes the diversity of sources and storytelling, the emphasis on digital news has done little to facilitate accuracy. “Personally I more enjoyed the print ethos: slow and steady... but online journalism doesn't come with that luxury so you have to accept what you're working with, trust your sources and publish when you feel it's right to do so,” says Weeks.

Truth is an Art

In some ways, it would seem that the dilemma of truth in photography is attributable to the medium’s unique blend of journalism and art. While accuracy is axiomatic to journalism and interpretation is a foundation of visual art, photography’s naivety as opposed to painting or lm might be derived from the idiosyncrasy of these attributes. is phenomenon became abruptly apparent during the 1930’s after it was revealed that Arthur Rothstein had staged his image, Steer Skull, Badlands South Dakota, 1936 that he photographed while documenting America’s dust bowl conditions for the Farm Security Administration. e image - depicting the skull of a cow resting upon dried, cracked earth - served to highlight the severity of drought in the Dakotas but was immediately undermined when several versions, displaying the same skull in slightly different locations emerged. While Rothstein’s defence was one of purely aesthetic intent, his critics claimed that his process invalidated the photograph. In either case, the message was clear: American’s steadfast belief in the photograph as a mechanical reproduction of truth was still strong but Rothstein had broken the rules. To move the camera to any position is allowed, but to move the subjects is not.

But it would seem that contemporary photography has somewhat matured when it comes to questioning the cobweb-adorned maxims of reportage. And even to re-consider Henri Cartier Bresson’s indefatigable “decisive moment”. Although photography has long heralded the decisive moment as the foundation for reportage, others argue that we do not really experience the world in still images - and we certainly don’t experience an entire scene in 1/250 of a second. For Canadian photographer, Sean J Sprague, his method

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of photographing a scene and blending numerous elements from each into a single frame may in fact be a more accurate technique than Cartier-Bresson’s famous maxim. Toronto-based Sprague, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design says that employing such an approach in his body of work on factory farming allowed him to negate any reliance upon visual “anecdotal evidence” when a montage of images pieced together permitted a more precise rendering of what he witnessed over time.

But while Sprague’s technique may present the viewer with a theoretically accurate depiction of a scene, his approach works in stark contrast to those endorsed by most current authorities on documentary practice (including World Press Photo) - a clash that he sees as a non sequitur in the argument for accuracy. “I’m not interested in adhering to rules that have been set out by an establishment. I make pictures in a way that I think is best and am forthcoming about it,” he says, elaborating that the rules set in place by industry contests may spur an environment where creativity and diversity of approach is not celebrated - or even permitted. “I think the main concern about some of this stuff that I hear about in the documentary community is a result of these contests and awards where rules are set out in stone. So for someone to get recognition they need awards and to get awards they have to follow rules,” he says. “In terms of photography evolving, I’d say I don’t think many things evolve unless they’re in an environment that is conducive to take risks freely. Contradictorily, I think the rules of documentary may end up being a good thing in the sense that it sets up a framework to be broken. You need picture-makers willing to break them, and I think we’re seeing more of that willingness. It’s not going to work all of the time, but that process moves the medium forward even in its setbacks.”

Truth in Reality

Somewhat exemplary of some photographers’ discontent with the “decisive moment” adage is the Magnum photo agency’s adoption of several young practitioners that are encompassing somewhat avant- garde methods of photo-documentation. As the most famous and most purist collective of photojournalists in the world, Magnum’s modus operandi for decades has been to celebrate Cartier- Bresson’s precept but in recent times has taken on several nominees known for their work in directed imagery including Newsha Tavakolian and Max Pinckers. At only 27-years-old, Pinckers’ use of constructed images contrast’s Magnum’s reputation for classic reportage but the Belgian photographer says his approach has been warmly welcomed by the monolithic agency. “I think they are really in a struggle with this idea that Magnum is a mythical, very classical place for photojournalism and they are trying to rede ne themselves which you can see in a lot of the younger members that don’t really follow this stereotype of classical journalism,” he says. “I see it as a really nice challenge of how the way of looking at documentary photography can expand to different areas. Especially in an agency that reaches such a wide audience.”

Pinkcers’ body of work Two Kind of Memory and Memory Itself attempts to deconstruct the Western world’s romantic and fetishized image of Japan (whether it really exists or not) using the Belgian photographers’ primary technique of constructing essays that contain both posed and spontaneous images. e resulting photographs of loitering policemen, fatigued bankers and an homage to Hokusai’s Sudden Gust of Wind prompt the viewer to question their own preconceptions about reality in this foreign land. But as Pinckers elaborates, Japan’s stereotypical image as perpetuated around the rest of the world also becomes an example of the relationship between truth, image and reality. “It comes from that idea that a nation or a culture chooses to represent itself in a certain way for political and economical gains or power,” he says. “Of course, the resulting work is a very simpli ed way of dealing with or hinting at that but it is motivated by an extremely complex matter which you can re ect onto any kind of situation in everyday life when it comes to making choices of how one represents him or herself in order to then gain something from it.”

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Pinckers admits, through both his photographic and written essays that a diversity of approaches in communicating what we might like to term truth or realism is necessary simply because “reality is so much more complex than you could ever take a picture of with your camera,” he says. “And that’s where it kind of started for me - I think our reality is shaped by many things that we don’t we see or a lot of abstract concepts that we have that really shape the way we experience the world but that you can’t take a picture of. It’s really a conceptual reality that we live in.”

Objectivity or Objecti cation

It would seem that while painting, drawing and sculpture have matured to embrace their subjectivity, photography is still engaged in an adolescent struggle with truth. Perhaps due to a legacy of the mechanical nature of the camera but in any instance, a society so immersed in consuming photographs is evidently still convinced of photography’s accuracy and as the Steve McCurry debacle illustrates, to take advantage of this is to deceive an unknowing audience. And while photojournalism’s media and contest bodies continue to rule out the practice of staging in photographs, the industry’s most famous and most reputable photo agency is learning to embrace constructed images as a technique to further our understanding of reality. Perhaps, while any pursuit of truth in photography seems futile, a portrayal of our time’s reality might be more attainable and as the new generation of practitioners seem to reference Arthur Rothstein’s technique in their pursuit of effective communication, one wonders whether rules are being broken or if we simply need to abandon our faith in the camera’s aptitude for precision. But as Pinckers posits: the real problem with our celebration of adherence to the World Press Photo ethic is that it’s not only photographers playing by the rules - it’s the subjects as well. While the canon of journalistic images that precedes us grows ever longer, the roles of both those photographing and those photographed are further set in stone and what we might like to think of as reality is much more constructed than we realize.