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Drawing the Line.

N.B. The photos are unrelated to the post, but I don’t like posting without photos.


The Pineapple Man

The debate on “editing” photos continues apace online (and elsewhere). And the distinction between “editing” and not editing is one I am struggling to understand. I’ve always maintained that a photo is not altered by merely processing it to bring it inline with what it is intended to represent.

Background: Mr. Damon Winters of the New York Times won 3rd place in a competition hosted by Pictures of the Year International. The photos were processed through an app called Hipstamatic on his iPhone.

What got me started off on this rant is Chip Litherland’s semi-hysterical rant on the death of true, pure, unadulterated, virginal photojournalism at the hands of Damon Winters and the judges of Pictures of the Year International. No doubt someone can suggest to me what the circumstances are that will produce the photojournalistic manna which might be acceptable to Mr. Litherland (on the basis of their own subjective criteria, naturally).

As an aside, for me, removing or adding elements to a photo moves it out of the realm of photography and brings it into the realm of photo illustration. And to me, there is nothing wrong with that either as long as there is no attempt to deceive. But this is not what I am discussing here. What I am targeting is simple (or complex) processing; cropping, colour, contrast, etc.

Refreshing Rain

The fact of the matter is that all sorts of manipulation can take place even before the light hits the sensor (be it digital or film). The photographer’s choice of lens will affect perspective, choice of aperture will affect depth of field, choice of shutter speed will affect the way motion is recorded.

And I haven’t even mentioned the most important source of manipulation yet; the photographer’s choice of where to point his camera.

Every viewer of every photograph, every reader of every newspaper or book, every listener of every musical piece, sermon, speech, news report (etc) brings to their consumption their own peculiarities and preferences.

It is all subjective and there are no absolutes (sorry). There cannot be, because of a roughly 3 pound bit of custardy meat called the brain. Each and every person has his or her own unique view of the world around them and that view varies by too many factors to consider; were they beaten in front of their friends at a birthday party, did they have a mix of races accompanying them to school everyday, did they have eggo waffles or bake and saltfish for breakfast this morning.

The point is; there can rarely be any one thing that everyone forms exactly the same conclusion about.

Basketed Bounty

Getting back to photography specifically; I’ve said this before but there is no right way to present a photograph to ensure that it speaks the truth (if it’s truth you want try the Bible, Quran or Bhagavad Gita). There can rarely be a situation where a photographer can record a photo without putting his or her own interpretation on that scene.

Do you think if you point a camera, pull the trigger and upload the resulting photo immediately, that you have shown the truth? Is it even accurate? Some software engineer at a lab in some part of the world put together a set of parameters that defined how your camera would record images.

That person decided how each and every image coming out of your camera would look, by default. There is no magic in it, no dust from the scene floats through the lens to embed itself on to the sensor making it magically true.

Is the photographer’s processing of the image after it comes out of the camera magically different from an engineer in a lab somewhere deciding how it will look, before the image is taken?

Even with film, there are varieties that will give accurate skin tones for type of skin tone, but not another. There are films that will bring accurate colours to certain types of light, there is black and white film. The point is, someone decided to alter the recording medium in specific way to record a particular characteristic. A conscious choice is then made by a photographer as to what option s/he will exercise.

Is it “true” or “honest” or “genuine” only when you use a neutral setting (as defined most likely by an engineer somewhere in Japan) on your camera, viewed through a lens which identically duplicates the field of view of an average person (as defined by a scientist speculating on the basis of the eyes of the 10 corpses he has dissected) and pointed at the scene that you are attempting to photograph by throwing the camera up into the air and snapping the shutter wherever it ends up pointing?

Damon Winters himself in the New York Times article makes the point much more clearly and succinctly than I do, but then I add that delightful element of ridiculing those who don’t agree with me, topped with a healthy serving of hyperbole, to flog my point to death :).

Forward Outlook

The bottom line for me is this: every aspect of photography involves a choice. Anything ranging from aesthetics to composition to equipment is a choice made which can affect the final outcome. To suggest that there is any “pure” representation of reality is absurd because we all view reality a bit differently.

I think the person drawing the line should be the maker and not the consumer. If the maker goes overboard, then the consumer will decide with his or her feet (or eyes). But I shouldn’t be the one to decide, nor any pundit/blogger.

It’s not my place to make choices for the people around me, certainly not when deciding on aesthetic issues.

There are degrees, certainly. I’ve been overly dramatic to make a point, but I acknowledge and agree with someone who says that a newspaper probably shouldn’t publish a photo as news when it has been processed to the point where it bears little relationship to the original scene (I think I’ll leave judging degrees of a photo’s relationship to a scene for another day).

Certainly, Damon Winter deserved his award for his superb photos, processed to reflect his impression of the scene. And I do not agree that either Hipstamatic on the iPhone, or any post-processing to strengthen the photographer’s interpretation of the scene can ever be wrong. Before that photograph is even recorded, too many choices have already been made to determine what it will look like. A little post-processing, whether automatic in camera or driven by the photographer’s hand, makes no difference. None!


P.S. Oh, and on the question of whether photojournalism can be art? Of course, it can and is! (See, I can also be brief on controversial topics).

P.P.S. And another thing, I think people who use Holgas or Dianas or Hipstamatic or any other gimmick thinking that anything that then comes out of their camera is “art”, are terribly annoying.

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Tell us what do you think.

  1. Michael C. Lam says: February 28, 2011

    I think your Rant and your topic are very contradictory, but that is what you intended 🙂
    Everyone has an opinion on these things, unfortunately most everyone seem to believe that their opinion should not only be heard by everyone else, but adopted as their opinion too.
    When I started out, I had drawn a line, I thought it important to have a guide to help me develop as a photographer, I still have a line but that line is always moving, never far from the original but always changing to adopt to the new views and opinions I get from others.
    I’m not saying there should be a line, etched in stone, but that each photographer should have a criteria as guidance and move from there.
    Imposing that view on others is unacceptable, whether we like it or not, photography is an artform, but not everything that comes out of the camera is art.

    • Nikhil Ramkarran says: February 28, 2011

      Well not really contradictory, but maybe not as clear as I could have made it. I was arguing against drawing an arbitrary line 🙂 But my conclusion is the same as yours, that it is up to the consumer of your art to decide what line will be drawn, or where that line is drawn. And not for “pundits” to draw lines for us.

      We of course should draw lines only with respect to our own work and not impose those lines on others (and yes I know at least in that respect I am contradicting myself).

  2. Wallace says: February 28, 2011

    Personally I like good images and don’t care what went into making them unless they are put forward as representing some truth. Of the photographers I admire probably half create their images and the other half take them. I like Andreas Gursky equally for what he creates as I do Edward Burtynsky for what he reveals. There are many more but these are the two at the top of my current photographer list.

  3. Sandra Marek says: March 1, 2011

    As usual Nikhil, well versed.
    Is there really a definate line? In my world those lines are becoming more blurred. In order to continue growing I’ve had to learn photoshop. Besides the basic levels and other minor tweeks, clients want borders and “pretties” added to prints. This year one of my goals was to learn more photoshop for that very reason.
    I see amazing art work created from a mediocre image. How’s that possible? With all sorts of software.
    My “choice” when I pick up a camera, is first and foremost, to get a great image, to have it properly exposed, to have the correct balance. It doesn’t always happen but those are my choices FIRST, then let PS do some magic too.
    By the way, Great images.

  4. RichL says: March 3, 2011

    My own choice is for adjusting color, shade or whatever to make it match what I remember it being like. On the one or two occasions I have actually changed the picture content such as removing a telephone pole or changing the color of of a house I actually put the statement “photo shopped” down where a signature would go.
    This relates to your last post on Shutterfinger.

    For B&W processing have you tried a school or local news paper? Either might have a darkroom set up.

    • Nikhil Ramkarran says: March 3, 2011

      Thanks for the suggestion Rich, but the problem is not so much the darkroom or equipment, but the chemicals. There is no longer any importer of the chemicals needed. And I don’t know of any school which teaches photography here unfortunately.

  5. Wallace says: March 5, 2011

    As an aside I really like the “Refreshing Rain” image something flipped horizontally and in B&W comes to mind.

  6. Vigneshtg says: March 12, 2011

    the photographer decides the frame to be shown the world, but after the capture if he alters the image to such an extent to create an strong emotion in it, even though its subtle is unethical….

    I guess this article will interesting for you


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