Modern newspapers work to a clock that deals in seconds and minutes, rather than days or weeks, and so must photographers
In the previous week’s column we discussed how the digitalisation of photography has changed the face of photojournalism and how this has, at times, had the photographer at an ethical crossroads.
Modern newspapers work to a clock that deals in seconds and minutes, rather than days or weeks, and so must photographers. Gone are the days when a photographer could spend a few days searching for that perfect picture, not as rails against time, he sometimes has to rely on sheer talent and luck to get a printable photograph. These time constraints can sometimes force him to chose an unethical path, doctoring or embellishing an image to suit the editorial.
There has been a trend of late in the print media where photographers are increasingly asked to concentrate on the aesthetics of composition, rather than content. Their roles have become akin to creative visualisers rather than documenters of news. Celebrities, lifestyle and other ‘soft’ topics have become the rule, and social photography the exception.
Take the case of the photojournalist who was asked to cover a fashion show in the morning, and then a portrait of losing mayoral candidate just one hour later. The photojournalist needs time to move from one frame of mind from where lighting plays a major role while snapping pictures of models sashaying down a ramp to another, where a man is at one of life’s many cusps. If he’s not careful, he could end up with a sashaying politician.
Many say the camera cannot lie, and that is true only in the sense that the images it captures must have existed in one form or another in time. But it is not always clear if those images have been manipulated to alter, or to stage an event that never actually happened. Staging a photograph only adds insult to the already injured ethics of photojournalism, and it is all the more injurious when one knows that ‘staging’ has been done by some of the finest photographers in the world.
Though photographers in the West have suffered its fair share of lapses on the ethical front, in India, it has become an epidemic. In one of the most macabre incidents, three of the country’s top photographers dug up a four-day-old grave of a small boy to highlight the catastrophe of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. That the boy was in no way connected to the event seemed to not have bothered them in the least.
Digitally manipulating a photograph is as bad as staging one. Digital manipulation is relatively easy to accomplish, hard to detect, and perhaps more alarming, is that the alteration takes place in the original image, hence checking authenticity is virtually impossible. This is why courts these days tend not to use photographs as evidence, and why they probably won’t do so in the future either.
Photographers will use numerous arguments to defend themselves. They’ll say reporters cook up quotes, sub-editors use blatantly misleading headlines, and feature writers plagiarise, but there’s really no excuse…for any of the above. The reader is your god, and if you fail him, then there truly will be hell to pay.