Edgar Martins, journalism and art

This is somewhat a reaction to some of the issues raised by the Martins fiasco, but mostly it is some thoughts I have about documentary work. Perhaps Friday is not the right day to put up a school-essay length post, but all this has been roiling around inside for so long that it was either going to shoot through the internet or shoot through the top of my head, leaving a gaping wound.

This debate is so huge I hardly know where to start, but here is a quote I found via Steph Plourde-Simard’s post on Existing Light:

The idea that, ‘after Photoshop, photography is dead in the realist-indexical sense’ is a belief that I find both theoretically unproductive and, on a political level, potentially reactionary or anti-democratic in some way. Its effect is to erase the documentary power of photography, which is precisely the political potential to link art to transformative radical politics.

Even if we know after Photoshop that realism is a construction, I think we cannot simply abandon the claims of photographic realism. It continues to exist and to be necessary in the so-called digital era. If we want democracy to continue, we need some form or idea of documentary.

This is a quote from Jorge Ribalta on Foto8. The middle of the article gets a bit ism heavy for my taste, but I think this is an important point to reiterate when statements are flying about the lack of “truth” in photography.

The first argument against photographic truth is that all photos are manipulated, whether film or digital. There’s a lot of talk about where to draw the line, about grey areas of postproduction, but I think the line is very clear. There is an obvious difference between doing a bit of perspective straightening or minor color correction, which is an alteration of some aspects of presentation, and actually inserting or removing objects, which is an alteration of content. When you, say, color correct in Photoshop or with tungsten-rated film you are adjusting for the way our brains react to being in a tungsten-lit room. After a while, we don’t necessarily notice the cast anymore, whereas we find a yellow-tinted photo unnatural. When you correct slight perspective distortion digitally, you are adjusting for the difference between seeing a building as a 3D construct in the physical world and a building as a flattened 2D representation or correcting for whatever constraints led you to not hold the camera completely level. In both cases, you are trying to match the picture to your admittedly subjective experience of standing in that place at that time.

Another argument against the existence of photographic truth is lack of contextual clues. This is the gist of Errol Morris’ recent post (Liar, Liar) in… where? The Times, of course, where he points out that even our own family photos can be mysterious:

I have often wondered: would it be possible to look at a photograph shorn of all its context, caption-less, unconnected to current thought and ideas? It would be like stumbling on a collection of photographs in a curiosity shop – pictures of people and places that we do not recognize and know nothing about. I might imagine things about the people and places in the photographs but know nothing about them. Nothing.

This collection could even involve my own past. I recently was handed a collection of photographs taken by my father – dead now for over fifty years. I looked at it, somewhat confused. I suppose saddened by the passage of time. Even though I am in the photographs, the people in them are mysterious, inherently foreign.

Morris’ truth refers to the personalities, preferences, history or relationships of the people in the photo. If that is what you mean by “truth,” then no, a photo yields nothing. But, if you just want to see how the average person dressed or what type of houses they lived in at a certain point in time, what your relatives looked like, or what we can infer about technological progress from household objects, then the photograph is accurate, it is true in one sense of the word. I think this is the sense that is meaningful in the long run. A documentary photo is a record not only for us but for our descendents, who may simply want to be shown what life was like in our time. Sometimes I wonder if we’re all not working ourselves into a froth for naught. Is truth in the first sense of the word really what we expect from a photo? I’m not sure that what anyone actually expects aside from our endless tendency to draw conclusions from appearances, in real life or in snapshots.

Which brings me to: a photograph is no more or less truthful than real life, than the experience of seeing a stranger. You walk into a cafe, you see several people sitting in it… what do you know about any of those people? Why they’re here, what they’re thinking, the history of the cafe. Why would we expect a photograph to convey these things that aren’t even obvious in real life without some investigation beyond the purely visual? How well can any of us really know another person? There are always things that we don’t know. But this doesn’t mean that attempts to get to know a person, a situation, an issue aren’t worthwhile. We can at least try to ensure that a journalistic photos are as accurate and unaltered as possible. This is what the Times is supposed to and failed to do in this case.

The frame itself is a partial truth, right? Selection of the frame is subjective. Sure. I agree, but it’s a practical impossibility to capture everything, in a photograph, in a scientific paper, in a film, in an investigative report. Yes, we have to make judgments, exclude some things in favor of others. What other option is there as a practical matter? This is the inherent limit of our abilities of information retrieval and comprehension as human beings, and it’s not limited to photography. We have the best we can do. The solution is to teach people to be better critical thinkers (isn’t that, in fact, the single best solution to a lot of problems?), whether they’re photographers or viewers, not to discredit photojournalism.

More importantly though, we are really missing the point in a hugely callous way to complain about the aesthetics of photojournalism when the obvious point is that there are places in the world where people are suffering in ways we cannot imagine. You are not supposed to look at the photo and think, “gee, I’ve seen that look a billion times.” Or maybe you are. Maybe our jaded reaction to the look is indicative of how much we need a kick in the rear to remind ourselves that these photos do in fact have a documentary power that goes beyond aesthetics. The fact that these photos keep coming in tells us something about the problems we still have in the world. I’ve gone back and forth on this, and recently I wonder if a photographer really needs to side with art or photojournalism. Why can’t we deploy traditional photojournalism for discrete event-based news and art for less time sensitive issues?

Art has always been used to address social issues. There are many fictional films made about atrocities in war, discrimination, every issue you can think of. I think we can all agree that treatments like that can be effective, that a story made up of personal facts from many different individuals can have some sort of aggregate representative truth. But they are all upfront about the fact that it is technically a fiction. Despite what they think of the Martins fiasco, bloggers seem to agree that the problem wasn’t digital manipulation, it was failure to disclose it.

So is the problem really an unreliable medium or that we need more reliable practioners? I don’t begrudge anyone the freedom to make artistic statements. I have the urge to make the occasional artistic statement. But what’s so great about faking other people out? That is what happened in the Edgar Martins and Guillaume Chauvin situations. In the Martins situation, the guilt is shared and I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt that maybe it was simply a miscommunication of intent, but in the Chauvin situation, it’s very clearly a fake-out. It was a destructive thing to do. If the duo are so hellbent on change, why not do something constructive, like actually go out and shoot in this new, better photojournalistic aesthetic? What’s the point of pulling a stunt like that when a healthy debate is already in progress?

That stunt is applauded by some because, it seems to me, the art world embraces controversy and novelty. There is often a reward for transgression. But even if you think they did a great thing, you cannot deny that it was manipulative. The jurors don’t have a chance. It’s one thing to find yourself in a meeting with Borat or Bruno and not have the sense to see the outlandish stunt, but quite another to simply be told that what you’ve received is one thing when it’s not. I don’t think those sorts of actions ever really lead to constructive change. You don’t win any allies to your cause that way.

Over at Critical Terrain, Mark Luthringer writes:

Maybe we can finally rethink the whole notion of having so-called ‘fine art photographers’ do editorial work. It’s a devil’s bargain and almost always a dismal outcome for each side (editor and photographer) in my opinion. If Martins is a ‘fine art photographer,’ then oughtn’t he be afforded wide latitude in his strategies and the kinds of images he makes?

This is a terrible notion. I hate this idea that an art photographer can only be trusted to make subjective, expressive photos, that a photographer is either “truthful”, or not. Is it so strange to expect a photographer to be able to both work on personal art and to take documentary assignments seriously? This, I think is something that can only be determined on an individual basis, from photographer to photographer. It’s ridiculous to generalize that art photographers are no good for journalistic projects. I don’t think there’s a problem as long as you are sure of your and your client’s goals/intentions for each project. If there’s any significant possibility that intentions aren’t aligned, one of the parties has to have good enough judgment to call it off. The solution here is better judgment on both sides, not just excluding art photographers as a whole.

And as a quibble, I think the problem was not that Martins is a fine art photographer, but that he is a commercially viable fine art photographer who, as Tim Griffith states in that Critical Terrain post, works in a field where clients “want to see the constructed reality, not the truth,” and who usual process includes cleaning up or modifying the images in a way that makes them more attractive. This is why lifestyle and travel photography (and really anything that tries to sell you something) don’t work as documentary. You could argue that a lot of art photos are arranged or posed, but I’d say there is a big difference between going to a subject’s home and rearranging some of their possessions or positioning them for dramatic effect, and actually building a room up from the carpet to the decor or using models.

I do realize this opens up questions about whether photojournalism is trying to sell you something. I suppose it is in the context of an institution that is either using it as content that users will pay for or charitable organizations that want your monetary donation. But this is the inevitable result of the necessity of considerations for survival, for individual photographers and for institutions, and it seems no piece of work is ever totally separate from that. (If you want to point out something important that I’m missing, let me know in a comment or drop me an email at shootingwideopen at g-mail. I realize I never put up a contact address. I don’t know that the size of this blog warrants it, but I’ll place this address in permanent view this weekend.)

Still, the power of a documentary photo, at least for me, is the simple “I came here and this is how it looked.” Not “I came here and this is how I would have liked it to look.” We really need to protect this distinction because photos do change our perception of reality – possibly because evolutionarily speaking, the only truly realistic looking images we saw for the bulk of our history was the real physical world – and there is great value in being able to trust your eyes. Just look at what’s happened to women’s body images after so much exposure to heavily corrected photos and videos everywhere. This is an addenum that I forgot to append to the post on visual language.

The world would be a terribly confusing and treacherous place if you couldn’t trust your eyes. (Is it facile to mention the Matrix?) We need to make some attempt to improve photography’s ability to convey reality on the most basic physical level. Maybe you end multiple photojournalists to cover a single event. I don’t have the answers, but I don’t think the right attitude is “photojournalism is tainted, let’s give up on photographic truth.” This attitude reminds me of reactions to Skeptic philosophy. Some people take it as practical advice to think critically about all things and others take it as a directive to doubt everything and swim constantly in a sea of uncertainty.

~ by Jin on July 31, 2009.

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