Fred Ritchin: Bending The Frame

A key concept of the Phonar course is to examine the evolutionary medium that is photography and in Fred Ritchin’s book Bending The Frame (2013) he takes this idea and applies it to the area of photojournalism. Ritchin to some extent represents those who prefer the conventional forms of media having grown up in the time before the paradigm shift from analogue to digital. Our previous module in digital media would have Ritchin named as a ‘digital migrant’, part of the generation that preceded the digital world however have the capacity to function in the field with a developing understanding. Digital natives are the generations that have been born into and grown up in the environment of digital media who are therefore more accustomed to it and can function with minimal effort. It is understandable the digital migrants would be resistant to the introduction of technology especially in relation to the field in which they work so the interview with Ritchin about Bending The Frame was extremely interesting to hear as a digital native.

Ritchin proposed that the point of photography was to be useful in the world, this phrase is directed towards documentary photography and photojournalism however it can be applied to other forms of photography. The original spirit of documentary photography was to expose and inform the public of information that was deemed to be in their interest and there were fewer professional practitioners that were responsible for providing this imagery than there are today. With analogue photography there was little debate that the photograph showed “what is” and although there was some manipulation seen in the dark room these were often obvious and even renamed as ‘composographs’ to indicate the precense of fabrication. With few iconic images seen the readers became collective in their experience of seeing the same material; Ritchin refers to the days where people would feel compelled to discuss news items with each other in communal places such as the subway.

In comparison to this Ritchin explores the nature of photojournalism and documentary photography following the paradigm shift from analogue to digital. Although analogue is still technology the digital era has brought a new wave of tools that have shaped the medium with the main concept being the difference between the photographic print and the digital image. The print would usually be considered as a snapshot, an evidential form of photography that serves a purpose of informing however the digital image is a data visualisation built up of two forms of information; metadata and visual data. It is worth noting that the digital image isn’t bound to the camera as much as the analogue print, with the introduction of editing software such as Photoshop the possibilities of the digital image are endless which in turn leaves it vulnerable to forms of fabrication.

Ritchin stated that the change in photography is like a revolution, some will campaign for change and some will cling to the safety of the past however the real questions lie with the power in photography now; if photographers have the power to distort reality what is stopping them? There have been examinations into the ethics of photojournalism however there are no fundamental rules of ethics that the photojournalist should abide to; the closest perhaps are the guidelines laid down by the National Press Photographers Association. Ritchin summarised the topic of editing by likening the manipulated photograph to a diminished voice; by removing or altering the data in the image the essence and meaning is changed. In the same sense our relationship with the image has changed; the process of seeing has transitioned from print to screen and we are no longer viewers, we are users. In ‘using’ an image we assess the visual information on offer and estimate whether what we are seeing is to our liking and if it is true; however if the population constantly has to question the authenticity of images it generates serious questions as to nature of our modern society.

Of course the transition of photography can also be likened to evolution; instead of endangering analogue methods, digital photography works to advance and innovate the practise. There is a nature of collaboration in creating an image between the subject, photographer and the viewer, Ritchin stated “If you want to change the world you have to describe it differently” and this notion can be applied directly to modern photojournalism. Instead of mourning over a ‘lost era’ we can use the new technology to start making a change in the world, as professional photographers we have the capacity to start producing proactive photography as opposed to simply reacting to an event. The evolutionary nature of photography must be accompanied by those practising it, as Ritchin stated in this interview “we need to build bridges towards the understanding the world rather than waiting for something to react to”.

All ideas and statements were taken from the Phonar interview between founder Jonathan Worth and Professor Fred Ritchin. To listen to the interview follow the link:



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