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Monday, 13 February 2012


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Surely when reviewing a book like this that takes you on an investigative journey you shouldn't reveal the conclusions in the review?


Here is an interview with the author. He discusses the book.

I've not listened to it but I want to, thanks for the reminder.

The concepts sound fascinating.

What a strange way to begin your discussion. Your account of what happened at the sacremento bee is neither accurqte nor true; the photographer was not fired for (a gross, clumsy, and aesthetically ill-advised) falsification of a phtoto of egrets. Charitably enough, he was only suspended for that. He was fired after the newspaper discovered several other news photos of his which he had altered.

Does anyone honestly think that a news photogrqpher, who knows the standards for news photos and nevertheless chooses to flaunt them (falsely representing his work as meeting those standards), should not be fired? This is a matter which goes straight to the heart of the integrity and the very survival of both journalism and phtotography.

And i say that as a documentary photographer, with a great deal of sympathy for the position of news photographers and a huge appreciation of morris and his work. But i fail to see where "charity" would suffice to excuse the actions of that "news" photographer.

Now that's odd, just yesterday I was reading Erroll's three part essay for the NYT on the Fenton photos. And If you hanen't seen his documentaries please rent some. Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure, Fast Cheap and out of Control, and most of the First Person series are all worth seeing.

Underserved subject.

A photograph is not a self evident truth. Even the best intentioned Journalist can only hope to create a document. An unreliable one at that.

Take the photographs you have the most confidence in and run the facts to ground, as this author has done. Find out what was really going on in front of the lens. Your pictures will squeal like pigs. I hear squealing almost every time I push a shutter and if you don't, you may not be listening.

It looks like an intriguing book. So much so, that I've got it on reserve in the library system here in Madison. However there are others ahead of me in the queue - did they read this article before me?

Very interesting article. Thanks. I imagine that Errol Morris is often told by colleagues to get a sense of perspective. (I hope he never even tries.) This article confirms that I'm going to end up buying many copies of this book and giving it to people.

Geoff Dyer's forthcoming book on Tarkovsky is another that might be interesting, though I don't always get Dyer in print. I saw him talk a few months back and give an interesting presentation; he was able to convey much more in that small lecture hall that usually he does to me in a book.

I'm sad to say I really don't like this review. What the heck is going on?

Let's focus on the Fenton essay.

I read the Morris essay's on Fenton in the New York Times and I have the book Believing is Seeing right here next to me on my desk.

What makes the essay great is the journey that Morris takes you on, not simply the conclusion. This summary of the essay gives away the ending without capturing any of the flavor of the journey.

The joy in the essay is that Morris starts off with a quote from Sontag regarding a war photo from the beginning of photography. She's respected, so she should be a good source. The issue is that there are two photos of the same scene by Fenton, a road with cannonballs on it, and a road with cannonballs not on it. Which came first--and was Fenton trying to fake something by adding cannonballs to make the place look more dangerous?

Morris starts with the Sontag quote and checks her source-who says he was misquoted. And then starts a series of back and forths--one minute you think the cannonballs-on-the road was shot first, as the next layer is peeled back you start to think the other photo was first. And back and forth it goes the deeper Morris investigates. Each stage of the investigation produces a convincing case until the next layer shows it to be false. Back and forth, back and forth.

You need to read it. It is a fascinating work, regardless of the conclusion.

I have another "crime" that I would happily sack a newspaper editor for - using a stock photograph of something topical - and then getting it wrong.

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen a library photo of a plane or car or something relating to a story when the object in the picture is not only not the one mentioned in the story, but not even the right model......

How come we place so much more emphasis on the honesty of the photographer than we do on integrity of the editors? As this book demonstrates, the biggest lie is usually the caption and the commentary, not the picture.

Art or Documentary? For another view of Morris's book see this review from the Nation magazine. http://www.thenation.com/article/164750/erosion-errol-morris?page=0,0

Re the altered Sacramento Bee photo, here's an analysis from a non-photojournalism angle: Image Manipulation and Nature Photography by Rob Sheppard. An excerpt:

“A lot of folks want to simply condemn such an image for ‘changing reality’ (which it does and is not an ethical thing for a newspaper), but for nature photography, this brings up something, that to me, is more disturbing. As nature photographers, we are the ‘eyes’ of the public. People believe photography, so we owe it to them to show nature as honestly as we can. I don't want people to get the wrong impression of nature. In this Sacramento Bee situation, the photographer has literally created a behavior of the birds in the final photo that is not real.”

I think Steve Jacob is on the right track in his last paragraph. If we held the editors and writers to the kind of standard we seem to believe photographers should be held to, then almost everyone in the business these days would deserve to be fired.

Rarely does the written word accurately depict anything, and it is no accident.


@ MM and S. Chris,

I agree with you guys 90% of the time -- when a photographer is caught altering a photo, something serious has to be done, pour encourager les autres, but I also think there has to be some semblance of proportion in the punishment. The Bee photographer was accused of altering three photos: he removed a shadow of his arm in one (feature) photo, and altered the birds-fight-over-a-frog in another. In the third photo, of a wildfire, he published the straight version, but in a copy submitted in a photo contest, he enhanced the flames in Photoshop. Neither of the altered, published photos was a "news" shot.

Maybe it's just a personal thing with me, or maybe I'm just not pure enough, but if I'd been running the paper, I would have screamed at him, and suspended him without pay for some serious amount of time...a month, or two months. But I wouldn't take a long-time photographer, publicly trash him so he is no longer employable, and then fire him. That seems pretty heavy to me, especially with the economy like it is. I would definitely have scared the shit out of him, though..

I'd add that when I was working as a journalist, in the early years, I was given a low-level management position at a major newspaper, a position that was generally seen as a place that you would begin climbing from. I didn't climb. I found out that I couldn't fire a helpless and hopeless shlub who was working for me (and we desperately needed somebody good in his slot) because he had a wife and kids and was only a year or two from qualifying for a pension. That single experience made it very clear to me that I was not cut out for management, because I was incapable of doing things that, objectively, had to be done. My girlfriend is also a longtime journalist, perhaps of a more decisive mind that I, and she says she would have fired the photographer instantly. I just wouldn't have. My sense of justice would have been offended. And anybody who says it detracts from the seriousness and the reliability of newspapers, hasn't been reading newspapers. The most famous journalists (I'm speaking of columnists here) lie daily.

@ Darren and Rob -- I'm sorry you didn't like the review, but, it was an extremely difficult book to review, because the devil was in all the details. You can't really express all the details of a book, without rewriting the book, and this book is made up of tiny details. It is not, however, a mystery -- I was not exactly giving away an ending, since the endings were sort of implicit in Morris' beginnings. I do like Darin's characterization that "What makes the essay great is the journey Morris takes you on..." and I wish I'd written that.

Mr. Morris is an intelligent and thoughtful man who believes that a picture is worth ten thousand words.

Furthermore...sorry to jump back in, but I did want to add one thing to the conversation about photojournalism ethics...

From the World's Best Photography Magazine, as MIke calls it...(scroll down to the block of six photos.)


It's not the facts of the story that heightens my already low regard for the paper, it's the hypocrisy of the situation. What reporter does not 'highten' the emotion/impact of a story by selecting one word over another? What editor does not alter the verbiage of a reporter's writing to make clearer the intent, the meaning? And what photograph is NOT manipulated? Photography has always been held to a higher 'standard' than any other media, and I've felt for a very long time it is a silly, and in this case outright destructive, standard. This obviously talented photographer has had his career destroyed over what can only be described as a two-faced policy. A sad story indeed...

MM Said:

But let's be honest: most sentient adults are aware that every photo is at best only a representation of 'the thing itself'—in fact, even a small child knows that a photograph of an ice-cream cone is not the same as the ice-cream cone itself. From firsthand experience (their own snapshots) members of the general public know that photos are cropped, and are taken from only one of many possible angles, and that timing and lens choice and other decisions are all highly subjective. That knowledge is part of the public's 'photographic literacy,' the set of mental tools that citizens of the developed world rely on for reading photographs. They are tools every sighted member of the general public has honed from viewing literally millions of photographs (hundreds of photographs a day, in all kinds of contexts, for thousands of days).

I would say that most people don't understand that fully. In the most literal sense, they do realise that a photograph is an image not an ice-cream, but probably a large proportion can't tell the difference between a staged shot and a truly documentary shot. They usually aren't aware that the photo of the ice-cream is quite likely not ice-cream or the "serving suggestion" picture on the front of their cornflake box is actually cornflakes and lard, not milk. They also often can't understand how a photograph can manipulate the impression of a scene. I've lost count of the number of times people have said "When did you see that? I thought you were stood next to me all the time!"

One of the most striking examples of this is the famous Vietnam war picture of a guy with a pistol pointed at his head. The picture speaks of fear, threats and torture, but the film footage of the same scene shows the guy dragged out and shot almost instantly and has none of the feeling of the photo which captured just one tiny point in time.

After many years of accumulating books and running out of room to store them, I finally disciplined myself into dividing books into two categories: books I'd like to read, and books I'd like to own. I just finished reading a library copy of this book, and it did not make the cut of becoming a book I'd like to own.

I would describe Morris' book as a somewhat interesting journey that ended up having no destination. Along the journey I kept wondering where we were going, and we never got there. I don't consider reading this book a waste of time, but I am glad it was a library copy I read.

There are so many onion-layers of nuance and shades of grey when it comes to photojournalism, coming to any firm conclusions seems like nailing jello to a wall. I think everyone can agree that obviously Photoshopped altered images are egregious violations of journalistic ethics. The deliberate darkening of O.J. Simpson's face on the cover of a national newsmagazine? Another obvious violation. But how about all the dodging/burning and other darkroom manipulations applied by W. Eugene Smith for his brilliant photo essays? Or the darkroom removal of a distracting hand from the foreground of Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother"? Is that still kosher? The distinctions just get finer and finer. All the stuff that is cropped out of the final image, the parts of reality just outside the frame, represent essential context that is amputated by the very act of image capture. Unless (and perhaps, even if) there is journalistic and editorial integrity behind the entire enterprise, all photojournalism and documentary photography can greatly distort or even actively obscure reality.

Why the quotation marks for the word 'wife'?

Re the comments by MM and S.Chris: You make a reasonable case for the photog's punishment; I'm not privy to the unreported details. But I think a distinction could/should be made that the fishing-birds case did not in the least corrupt the "truth" of the scene/situation. I'm not at ALL sure the same can be said for the photos or other "evidence" that newspapers and othrer outlets choose NOT to publish for editorial or other reasons. We're being manipulated every day in virtually every way. I guess we might as well get used to it.

"Why the quotation marks for the word 'wife'?"

Sabrina Harman and Kelly Bryant were not married when Sabrina wrote her letters home. However, Sabrina referred to Kelly as her "wife," which means it's her word, which means we're quoting her. We're not making any statement about gay marriage here, merely quoting the word the subject used.


Manipulation is nuthin! All photography is selective and partial anyway, and if you then take the "selection" process which photo editors do, overt manipulation actually seems trivial. Ever wondered for example how the Guardian - a well respected newspaper - decides which "truthful" photos of someone like, say Fred Goodwin, (or Dubya) to use when accompanying a story? Shall we pick one showing him thoughtful and reflective, or one where he looks like an arrogant twit....

In case anyone's interested, you can see the now infamous egret 'n' frog pic from the Sacramento Bee here:


And here is the paper's explanation of why the photographer was fired, followed by many comments both for and against the firing:


Dear EZ and Geoff,

Just because an ethical code does not have a bright shining line does not make it useless or even flawed. In fact, the opposite. Much in the world is easily discerned as black or white. But not everything. An ethical code that entirely lacks a fuzzy boundary is one that is both unfair and unrealistic.

If someone feels they're not up to the task of dealing with the ethical implications, then they should stay out of the profession. They are unqualified.

That said, there are huge differences in the degree of manipulations possible. Implying that all manipulation is equal (and hence unjudgeable) is unreal.

As for holding photographs to a higher standard... if that is even being done and I've not seen anyone provide concrete evidence of that, just assumptions and accusations...

People see photographs and they don't analyze what they see, they remember them as visual experience. Words do not become incorporated in the same manner. People remember and reference visual memories without context or conscious association. That's not a matter of education, it's neurophysiology. To say that photos should not be treated any differently from the written word ignores a physical reality that they are NOT perceived in the same way.

And then there's a bigger picture (ahem):


pax / Ctein

What Ctein said.


I will add to the concern expressed about the need for a spoiler alert regarding the Fenton photographs by saying that if the reviewer is going to spoil the story by reviewing the conclusion, at least get the conclusion right. I'm referring to the reviewer's comment, "Believing Is Seeing contains much more, including, somewhat to my pleasure, what I see as proof that Reuters knowingly distributes anti-Israeli propaganda photography." This is very misleading as to what Chapter 5, "It All Began with a Mouse" contains. While complaints of Reuters photographers engaging in staging and falsification is alluded to and the rash of toy-in-rubble photos seems to support that, Morris' typically thorough and meticulous examination of the original Mickey Mouse amidst the rubble photo by Ben Curtis demonstrates there was no staging in this original controversial toy-in-rubble photo. Interestingly, what the reviewer "sees as proof" appears to be another example of Believing is Seeing.

In an unbelievable stroke of luck in my small town, I walked into the library this past weekend and spied this on the new books shelf. Your review was fresh in my mind, so I promptly checked it out.

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