It is reported that the AP has parted ways with a photographer for editing one of his photographs.

Now, I’m sure that the AP has its rules and regulations and has taken its decision based on these. That’s up to them and it means that those who closely follow news stories can, in theory,  be assured that photographic rules have been followed within a certain set of parameters and standards.

But this seems to have set off discussions on various photographic news websites and blogs, around the usual suspects of truth, authenticity, originality and reality in photographic images.

So, leaving aside this particular story,  editorial policies and also moving away from news journalism specifically, a few thoughts pop into mind.

Firstly, I’m not referring here to intentionally deceptive image manipulation (definitions of which, I’m not going to go into, because that’s a whole other story). I’m going to stick to ‘benign’ image editing – tweaks and changes to ‘enhance’ a photo (definitions of which…).

If airbrushing (or digital cloning) is a no no, then what about cropping an image to exclude an unwanted artefact? Would that be any better? In fact, how about if a photographer notices an unwanted artefact, whilst taking a photo, and manages to exclude it from the frame? Is that any less manipulative, or just better forethought?

How about camera technology? Neutral density graduated filters can help create some quite spectacular effects, which can dramatise any number of situations. Even different lenses will paint a different picture. Should all photographers only use 50mm ‘normal’ lenses? And who decided that 50mm was a normal view anyway?

Much of the current debate around digital manipulation also seems to ignore that, back in analogue photography days, reality was altered the second a photographer chose to use black and white film. And let’s not even get into different colour film emulsions and printing technologies.

Without getting too philosophical (I’m certainly not going to go into theories around history and fact), what we are mainly technically capturing with photography, is reflected light. Anything we do after that, is narrative creation.

Two identical images of a sunset, but with different post-processing effects applied.

Which is the original?

This is not to say that there aren’t ethics and responsibilities. On the contrary, for the sake of knowledge and accuracy, there has to be.

However, millions of people are now taking photos and digitally manipulating them on their phones, without giving it a second thought. Society’s relationship with photographic images is so much more complex than it was in the twentieth century (even more than when Sontag wrote about it). I feel that we need to be able to respond to the subject with a bit more sophistication, than the simple parameters that this debate so often brings up.

Update: For a more in-depth discussion around this topic, read my peer-reviewed article about authenticity in photography, in the Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy.