Jarle recently commented on the post "Crazy light", in which I wrote: "We are constantly challenged to
make scenes that are less than interesting, more interesting." The question that this raises, however, is when and how are the conventions of honest visual reportage bent for the sake of making images more compelling?
Correct. We all strive to make our photos more interesting. But, ethically and philosophically speaking, isn't this in direct conflict with the "our pictures must always tell the truth" mantra?
There's often a thin line between photojournalism, "art" and subjective, commentary photography.
And, playing the devil's advocate, what's the difference between adding motion blur in Photoshop and using a slow shutter speed?
I'll start out by agreeing with much what Jarle has said here. From a purist perspective, "Straight" photography should be a style of photography that records what the eye witnesses without elaboration or embellishment. For the most part, this form of photography, what is photojournalism today, has remained pretty much true to form. At the same time, it is possible to find quite a few examples of photojournalism from the 1980s to the present day, that deviate from the normal conventions.
Photo Credit: Craig Aurness/National Geographic
As Jarle notes, "ethically and philosophically speaking, isn't this in direct conflict with the "our pictures must always tell the truth" mantra?"
According to the NPPA Code of Ethics, photojournalists should "Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects." The language here seems a bit vague. The language is vague because ultimately it is up to the photographer or his or her editor to determine what "accurate" and "comprehensive" really mean within a specific context. Is Aurness' image and honest, fair-minded and "accurate" representation according to National Press Photographers Association guidelines? In a sense, Aurness has created for the viewer an image that human eye is incapable of seeing. The human eye captures motion at 1/10th of a second, but it also has the capacity to follow a scene without disruption. The optics and mechanics of a camera far exceed the eye in this manner. Therefore, in a case like this, what constitutes a comprehensive and accurate representation?
This issue may actually be more about cultural tastes and values than it is about ethics. Cultural conventions and tastes change over time, but at the heart of any photographer/audience relationship is whether or not the image is deceptive and misleading. Digital manipulation has created a crisis of conscience for many photographers, simply because it has become so cheap, fast, and easy to embellish, construct, and correct images. So much depends on the context in which the picture is made. Motion blur in news photography has been an accepted practice for many photographers for decades. Motion emphases action and helps to make the reading of a scene more meaningful and comprehensive. Just as depth of field can add 3-dimensionality to a two-dimension image, adding motion is a "trompe le oile" or a photographer's way of tricking the eye. However, is it appropriate or ethical to create motion after the fact -- in PhotoShop? Most photographers would probably say no, it's unethical to manipulate images in order to produce an effect after the picture was captured.
Stephen Krasemann's 1985 award-winning picture of a leopard running with a recent kill was made before PhotoShop techniques came into vogue. Today, however, viewers are more sensitive to representations they perceive as manipulated or altered in some way. Whether, the general public perceives motion blur and panning as a manipulation remains to be resolved.
Analyzing the image above, can we say unequivocally that a breach of ethics has occurred? Has the context in which the event took place been manipulated by my choice to employ a slow shutter speed? Is the scene somehow more inaccurate and less comprehensive a representation give the fact that the human eye is limited by how much motion it can see at a given point in time? Should photojournalists be required to photograph scenes at 1/10th of a second or higher to ensure that they are more truthful to the human eye?
These questions, and so many others, evoke a great deal of thought and emotion. At the same time, this "thin line" between photojournalistic convention and subjective "artistic" approaches mentioned by Jarle remains unresolved, because ultimately the decision resides with what the photographer believes to be right or wrong. So much of our decision to frame, freeze and fix a moment in space and time depends not only on context, but also on our motivation for being there in the first place.