When I was in photography school, I made a small portfolio called Ocean City, Maryland. It consisted of 12 or 15 pictures (I don't recall now) taken in Ocean City.
Except, one wasn't. One was a photograph of a cabin cruiser under power, taken from above. The picture was very simple: the boat was in the middle of the frame, its wake behind it, and the background was entirely water. It might have been taken in Ocean City—who could tell but me?—but as it happened, it wasn't. It was taken from a bridge in Washington, D.C. of a boat on the Potomac River.
I wrote an essay on this "lie," which was probably the earliest formulation of my conviction that a photograph is like a statement by the photographer, and the truth of the statement is on the photographer—just as with written or spoken statements, he or she can be honest, or not. There was nothing at all inherently duplicitous about that photograph of the boat; but by putting it in a portfolio called Ocean City, Maryland, and not specifying that it wasn't taken there, it became the equivalent of a false statement.
I was surprised by how divided the response was to my essay. Some of my classmates thought my conclusions were obvious; a few hadn't ever thought about it before but were convinced by my argument; and others thought it didn't matter. It "could have been" taken in Ocean City...what did it matter if it wasn't?
I also noticed that some people easily generalized the issue, and others wanted to concentrate on the specific instance.
There are two issues there, it seems to me. The first is that photographs can have content that the photographer isn't aware of. I used the boat to stand for "a generic boat"—it looked like every other medium-sized cabin cruiser of the era to me, and I'm sure it did to 98% of the people who looked at the picture. But of course it wasn't generic. It was a specific boat, of a specific make and model, which had a specific individual owner, specific people on board at the time, etc. It's far-fetched to imagine that someone might need the specific information in the picture, but not difficult to imagine the possibility. To name a trivial scenario: imagine that that boat had subsequently been sold, and the seller told the buyer it had only ever been used in the Potomac River and had never been operated in salt water, and the new owner of boat saw the picture and was able to recognize the boat as the one he bought. He might then think the seller had lied to him...because he had found a picture of the boat taken in Ocean City, which is on the Atlantic Ocean. Granted, it's very unlikely that this would happen. But it's possible. And it shows a general truth: photographs can have content that the photographer might not "mean," or even know is in the photograph.
I'll give you another example. I was photographing once in the Brandywine River Valley, and I got accosted by a homeowner who accused me of taking pictures of his truck, which was parked about 60 feet from me next to the trailer home he had come barrelling out of. I wasn't; I hadn't even really noticed his truck. I was taking pictures of...well, a shadow cast by a wrought-iron railing. The confrontation, however, made me very curious: why had he wanted me to not take a picture of his truck? Was it stolen? Was the repo man out to get it? Had he told his ex-wife he'd sold it? I didn't find out. (He was hostile, and a little drunk, and had no desire to talk to me.) But imagine that I had taken a picture of his truck beside his trailer home. The photograph then becomes evidence that, yes, the truck in the picture was probably sitting next to the trailer home in the picture. What significance that might have had was unknown to me, but his actions indicated that it indeed had some sort of significance.
The second issue is that photographs are evidence of true things in the world—not proof, but evidence—and making them into false statements when it's not clear to others that that's what you're doing essentially falsifies their inherent evidentiary value. (That no one cares might be true, but doesn't change the fact.)
Anyway, all of this is very long-winded preamble to a link I thought was fascinating. As seems to happen regularly now, a controversy has erupted about a prizewinning photo, and there's an excellent discussion of it at Bag News Notes. The article is by Michael Shaw and is called "When Reality Isn’t Dramatic Enough: Misrepresentation in a World Press and Picture of the Year Winning Photo." It begins:
What happens when a World Press Photo and Picture of the Year International award-winning photograph doesn't show what it purports to show? Not through a mistake of interpretation or subjective opinion, but when the facts show the photo wasn't taken where it was claimed to be taken and when the subject of the photo isn't who the photographer says he is. What happens when a city is represented through photographs bearing photographer-written descriptions almost wholly plagiarized from a 10-year-old New York Times article? Does it make it worse when the photos and the series in question, "The Crescent, Rochester USA 2012," have won multiple awards and the photographer is Magnum's Paolo Pellegrin?
A fascinating article...at least to me! The issue is virtually the same, but with much higher-level players, and considerably higher stakes.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Jim: "And here is the photographer's response."
Geoff Wittig: "As someone who lives near Rochester and whose son attended RIT, I found this post more than a little discouraging. Yes, Rochester has some substantial drug/crime problems in some neighborhoods, as do all midsized and large American cities. It's no better or worse in this regard than Buffalo or Cleveland. And it has nothing at all to do with Kodak's demise; Rochester's most crime-ridden neighborhoods were no better when Kodak was riding high. Adding some manufactured visual drama is simply beyond the pale.
"The grotesque violation of any standard of journalistic integrity is the obvious issue. The last few decades have witnessed a corrosive decline in confidence in many of our institutions, in many cases for good reason. Since journalism including photography is a vital check on other institutional powers such as government and corporations, this kind of self-inflicted wound is especially greivous. We already live in an era where true/false seem to be malleable constructs. This just adds fuel to the fire."
Dave: "An argument could be made your choices for your portfolio are more an 'artistic license' than the fraud discussed in the article. As an artist, you created a work to describe Ocean City Maryland and used a photo taken elsewhere to demonstrate a facet of that location. Boats, after all, are a major cultural element of Ocean City. Art is what the creator and viewer agree it is. Journalism, however requires an objective standard of credibility clearly lacking in the WPP winner."
Another phil: "I think the problems with misrepresentation (which his photo appears to be), is that it casts a shadow on all photojournalism, and people can then view photographers with suspicion. My rule-of-thumb is, the more accurate the description, the more accurate the photo has to be—if someone titles a photo 'Blackingstone Rock, Dartmoor, taken from the southwest,' I expect to be able to go there and see it myself, whereas if it is just titled 'Rock' my expectations are different."
Dennis A. Mook: "Thirty-eight years ago, and for several years, I was a forensic police detective. Part of my duties was to photograph the scenes of crimes, from minor incidents to homicides. When on the witness stand and under oath, the first question from the prosecutor to me was, 'Are these photographs a true and accurate representation of the scene as you found it?' This was in the days before Photoshop but, nonetheless, photographs could be altered in several ways. For example, we always photographed with a 'normal' lens to keep perspective correct, developed and printed our own photographs so as to keep the representation as close to how we found it, and never altered the photographs in any way. The photograph could not speak for itself, but only represent reality and truth when corroborated by the photographer. That was always necessary as a photograph could never be entered into evidence without the maker swearing under oath that it was both true and accurate. However, the irony lies in the fact that the courts would only accept black and white photographs, as color was too inflammatory and would bias the jury. So, I always added to my verification the words 'except for the lack of color.' We also noted if we used a strobe to light the scene. Looking back now, if color photography would have preceded black and white, monochrome would never have been admitted into evidence, as it is a far cry from reality as we found it.
"Today, the same standards are required. The image cannot represent the truth unless sworn to by the individual who made it. Should this be a requirement in non-judicial uses of photographs? I don't know but it would take the 'truth and accuracy' issue to a higher level."