Manipulation in Photojournalism

Photojournalism is being confronted with many complexities in the digital age of photography, however some of the issues have just been amplified. With twenty percent of entries to the World Press Photo 2015 being disqualified due to excessive editing, it is evident that manipulation in photojournalism is a widespread problem that needs to be addressed.  The parameters of manipulation have never been defined in photojournalism which has perhaps allowed and encouraged instances in which images have been manipulated to achieve a better aesthetic. However fabrication in a practice which is considered and expected to depict photographic realism would suggest corruption and as a result the faith in the image has steadily been diminishing. Have the audience been exploited by fabricated images they put their trust in?

The concept of photographic realism has been heavily linked with the idea of ‘straight photography’ which writer and practitioner Martha Rosler defines a recent development in the history of photojournalism. In the 1900s, the  audience loved candid, snapshot photography as it conveyed a real life representation which they could identify with which perhaps encouraged the production of images which were perceived to be depicting the ‘truth’. However there are many complexities surrounding the idea of photographic truth aside from image-editing software. Photography is a highly subjective practice in which the artists creates a representation based on their own ideology formed by their life experiences. The concept of the categorical imperative in association with ethics expresses that what is acceptable for one person should be acceptable for everyone, however there are no strict guidelines for manipulation in photojournalism. The actual definition of manipulation/fabrication is ambiguous, David Campbell stresses that the inclusions and exclusions made by the photographer in framing the moment can be just as destructive to photographic truth as excessive editing. When constructing a narrative and forming a photographic representation, the photojournalist must be responsible and attempt to frame the scene in the most effective and accurate manner.

It is apparent that digital technology has facilitated the photographer and the citizen with the capacity to manipulate their imagery with software like Photoshop readily available. Writer  and photographer Joan Fontcuberta commented that the digital image lends itself to manipulation more than analogue because it is coded in nature meaning the very fabric and matter of the image can be tampered with. One of the most well-known cases of manipulation in photojournalism was the 1982 National Geographic Cover which depicted the Egyptian Pyramids.


Where the audience believed they were viewing a genuine photograph, it was revealed that the distance between the pyramids had been digitally altered to suit the portrait composition of the cover. The National Geographic defended their actions by claiming they had only effectively gone back in time and moved the photographer’s position. Despite this claim, it was actions such as this where manipulation achieved what Rosler defined as ‘aesthetic pleasure’ that have caused the current conflict against ‘straight photography’. However Rosler explored further and stated that manipulation in the medium of photography isn’t itself an unethical practice, it is the attempted instances when fabricated photographs are passed off as reality which are the problem. Fontcuberta also addressed this notion in relation to the manipulated images of Keira Knightly; these images were created as portraits, a subjective, artistic representation which when viewed in the context of photojournalism appear to be unethical. It is not just the editing and the framing that factors in the concept of manipulation, it is the context in which the image appears which determines the manner in which it is interpreted. All these considerations must be taken into account in the photographic process of photojournalism.

In the current age of photojournalism, it could be perceived that the he audience viewing  also has a responsibility. Despite the purpose of photojournalism being to attempt to provoke social change, there is the notion of commercial viability which can affect the content being produced. There is a conflict between sharing imagery which is in the public interest and sharing that which the public desire and will purchase. As the audience took to candid photography, the presence of it grew in photojournalism; now with image-based social media growing, conventional media and professional photojournalists have been seen attempting to replicate this style in order to engage with the public. In addition to this, with the development of digital technology the citizen now has a more active role in the process of photojournalism. Previous instances of manipulation have resulted in a reduced naivety which means the audience have the power to interpret and judge whether the content they are seeing is believable. In response, Fontcuberta believes that the audience should take a more active role in seeking out truthful, reliable content instead of being passive and subsequently confronted with fabricated content designed to trick. Shahidul Alam stated in a talk that it is possible for effective content to be seen through the ‘noise’ of image saturation and it could be suggested that in the age of digital photojournalism, it is the role of the audience to seek and share it.

It is evident that digital technology has caused a growth in the amount of fabricated imagery seen in photojournalism, however the issues extend past the actions in Photoshop.  There are many points in the photographic process in which fabrication can occur: the framing of the scene, the editing of the photograph and the context in which it is viewed by the audience. Only by combatting all the issues associated with manipulation in the photographic process can the practice of photojournalism become completely responsible and ethical.




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