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What’s documentary about photography?:
From directed to digital photojournalism

by John Mraz


Digitalizing Photojournalism

How does the development of digitalized imagery affect photojournalism? What impact does this new medium have on the credibility that is the life’s blood of the documentary? If so many photojournalist images have shown themselves to be directed, what are the differences between directing and digitalizing?

There is little question but that digitalization is the future of photojournalism, and of photography as a medium. The ease and rapidity with which a digital image is ready to use, and the facility in transmitting it -- combined with the increasing scarcity of silver -- make it clear that chemical process photography will soon be limited to those who like working in antiquated techniques, such as individuals who make contemporary ambrotypes. However, the issues of journalistic credibility opened up by digitalization have produced a sharp reaction among those whose livelihoods depend on the believability of their images.

For example, the National Press Photographers Association of the U.S. issued a statement of principle at their annual Digital Imaging Workshop in 1990, stating that, because accurate representation is the benchmark of the profession, “Altering the editorial content of a photograph, in any degree, is a breach of the ethical standards recognized by the NPPA” (Harris). The ethical issue here is really one of the range of tolerance within the variations of photojournalism. As is the case with directed photographs, editors are much more tolerant of altering feature photos or photo illustrations than they are of manipulating news images. And, the uproar that accompanied the discovery of digital alteration in celebrated cases such as National Geographic’s moving of the Pyramids of Giza or Time’s digital darkening of O.J. Simpson’s face indicates that the professionals connected to photojournalism are wary of this threat to their medium.

Pedro Meyer, the Mexican harbinger of digital imagery, argues that such after-the-act digital alterations are not significantly different from the anticipated coincidence of content and form of classic photographers: “The only difference is that they wait before the shutter clicks, and I wait afterwards” (Meyer 1995). Certainly, altering photojournalistic images in the darkroom was a practice known long before digitalization. Eugene Smith inserted a saw handle --and a hand to grasp it -- into the opening picture of his photoessay on Albert Schweitzer, perhaps a rather strained visual synecdoche for the hospital construction the doctor was realizing. Yevgeni Khaldei (or Stalin’s censors) evidently removed stolen watches from the arms of the Soviet soldiers who were waving a flag for the photographer over the Reichstag in Berlin, after the army had taken the city in 1945. The excesses of photographic manipulation under the Fascist regimes of Germany and Italy, the Soviet dictatorships, the reign of Mao in China, and McCarthyism in the U.S. are well documented.

However, notwithstanding the history of photographic alteration, the ease with which digitalized images can be transformed is a difference that could make a difference. In one of the first essays to consider the impact of digitalization, Stewart Brand argued, “It is so easy to fiddle with the images that the temptation is overwhelming.” And, the fiddling may be done, not by those who were at the scene and experienced the event they photographed, but by computer technicians who have no sense of what really went on, and who alter images in line with a mentality increasingly governed by the conventions of advertising imagery.

Of course, computers can’t manipulate images without human agency. As Meyer pointed out, “What is called ‘traditional’ photography can be produced either in an analog way using a chemical process or in a digital format, electronically” (Meyer 2001a). Nonetheless, the facility with which digital imagery can construct a scene makes it tempting to avoid lengthy and costly investigative photojournalism such as that undertaken by Salgado, or Cartier-Bresson’s search for “the decisive moment” (which can now be constructed anytime in the computer), or even the interaction with unforeseeable social reality that was required for Nacho López to provoke the reactions of the men in the street to the beautiful woman.

However, if digital imagery has -- as Meyer argues -- “liberated” photographers from “reality,” it nonetheless trades on the documentary aura of straight photographs when it reproduces what would be considered photojournalism. In this sense, digital images can take advantage of the semblance of having “been there” -- apparently in accord with the photojournalist refrain, “F-8 and be there” -- without having to invest the time and effort to learn about a situation, and/or to encounter the confluence of form and content that make documentary photography important and moving. Fred Ritchin spoke to this concern:

If you go to Beirut or Nicaragua as a photographer, you’re in the experience and you try to interpret the experience whatever way you can.... We’re borrowing from the credibility of the photograph to get something across that we haven’t earned in a journalistic sense.... We use the easy credibility of a photograph, even though we weren’t there, to pretend we were there or somehow to give ourselves the authority without having earned it” (Abrams).

Comparing three images by Pedro Meyer and Dorothea Lange offers the opportunity to explore differences between digital images, directed photographs, and documentary pictures. These photos rely on the same strategy to construct their narratives: the juxtaposition of significantly ironic elements within a frame. Meyer produced an image, Mexican Migrant Workers, California Highway (1986/90), in which we see men laboring at agricultural tasks, stooped over in a field beneath a billboard advertising “Caesars,” an inn which offers “Free Luxury Service From Your Motel;” in the sign, a Roman gladiator stands in wait by the fancy private taxi, opening its door for prospective customers who, presumably, will not include the poor souls straining below. Meyer stated, “I had no intention of waiting a week, ten days or the time necessary so that something would happen, so that I could get the ‘decisive moment’ looked for so often by photographers…. The specific ‘decisive moment’ wasn’t to be found, it had to be created” (Meyer 1995).

Dorothea Lange had produced somewhat similar images while working for the FSA. She discovered billboards publicizing Southern Pacific Railroad, with advertising based around the slogan, “Next Time Take The Train.” In one image, made in California during March of 1937, two men walk along the road with their backs to us, carrying their luggage; ahead of them is a billboard for Southern Pacific Railroad. Here, the SP motto, “Next Time...,” is accompanied by a call to “Relax,” and the image of a man riding on a train, leaning back in a comfortable chair. About a year and a half later, again in California but during November of 1938, Lange came upon three families of migrants camping underneath another billboard with the same slogan (“Next Time...”), but this ad showed a man sleeping with a broad grin on his face, and included the appeal to “Travel While You Sleep.”

I would argue that, of these three scenes, it is the image of the families camped beneath the billboard that most closely fulfills the classical documentary ideal of finding a “reality” in the world, and providing evidence of its existence as well as information about it. We see the broken-down cars, the pitched tent, and the emigrants’ ragged clothing, among other elements. Though FSA photographers were not noted for carrying out extensive research on their subjects, the picture does include a significant amount of visual data, in addition to Lange’s intentionally ironic capture of the spatio-temporal coincidence of such unequal sleeping accommodations. Lange’s earlier photo, of the men walking along the highway with their baggage, is probably directed. The caustic comparison between the ways of traveling -- some people lay back in comfort, others trudge along with bags in hand -- is a powerful representation of class difference, but there is little information beyond that. Meyer’s digital image has created the counterpoint between the agricultural workers and the sign. As he noted, “I saw the Mexican migratory laborers at some kilometers from the site of the billboard. I had made the association between the two scenes in my mind, but they were separated in space. The photos were taken in pre-digital times, before the existence of instruments to link these two moments” (Meyer 2001b).


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