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Category: P1 C&N – Photography as document

The real and the digital

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth?

The answer to this question depends on one’s perception of film-based photography as truth, a this is the reference for the change.

Wells explains that we have always known photographs are manipulable but have been prepared to believe them as more real than other images. They would at least be based on some trace of reality. This coupled with information on the provenance of an image would give us a good indication of whether we should trust an image as representative of the real world. However, as a general rule we are wise to view even film-based images with some scepticism when they purport to represent a real life event – there is not just the possibility of manipulation in post-processing, but also in the photographer’s selection of the frame as a small piece of real life.

What digital technology changes is the possibility to create images from scratch on a computer screen, without the need to capture photos from real life using a camera. Or to relatively quickly and easily create invented images through digital compositing of disparate frames from reality. The speed and ease with which this can be done and the constructed images than shared digitally changes the way we see photography as truth. We need to view digital images with even greater scepticism than film-based photos because the technology is so readily available to most people to use or abuse in creating representations of real life, of truth. The provenance of an image, coupled with reliable first-hand accounts of events is perhaps the only way we can determine whether a photograph represents a reliable version of the truth. The image alone is not enough.


Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp.73–75

Image manipulation exercise

For this exercise, I used Photoshop to create a composite image which appears to be a documentary photograph but could never actually be.


The headline for the image is ‘new cinema and shopping complex built onto the sand of Southport’. Perhaps this might be physically possible in the right place with the right amount of investment (eg Dubai), but it is not in rainy Southport on the north west coast of England.

The image comprises two separate images of the beach and the cinema complex that is actually firmly on dry land. Techniques used in Photoshop included:

  • Basic levels and curves adjustments
  • Selection and copying of the cinema building from its original image to a new layer in the background seascape image.
  • The free-transform mode to resize and reposition the cinema building.
  • Soft brush to mask the edges of the superimpose image, to help the blending.
  • A gradient fill over the whole image to act as a binding
  • A duplicate layer with blur effect applied to building/sky only (masked) with reduced opacity – to help the building blend with the sky.

Colour & the street

Find a street that particularly interests you – it may be local or further afield. Shoot 30 colour images and 30 black and white images in a street photography style.

In your learning log, comment on the differences between the two formats. What difference does colour make? Which set do you prefer and why? (OCA C&N)

I chose the high street in Preston for this exercise – I was visiting Preston for Wilkinson Camera’s annual ‘Digital Splash’ exhibition and to watch two of the presenters there; so Preston was convenient and interesting because of its mix of old and new, well-maintained and dilapidated.

All photos were taken with a Fuji X-T1, using jpeg and Fuji’s in-camera colour (velvia) and black and white (monochrome). Using ISO 1600 and 3200 due to the dim light conditions of the autumn afternoon. The lens used was a Fujinon 35mm f1.4 (53mm efl). I deliberately did not use RAW to avoid the temptation of simply selecting which photos to treat in B&W or colour on post-processing. This way I could experience the impact of working in colour and black and white had on the choices I made when taking the photos.

click images to launch full-size gallery

These images are the selects from the photos I shot over a period of two hours. Comparing the two formats:

  • The b&w are more dependent on structure and patterns within the images for their effectiveness. This is illustrated by photos 6 and 7 – I converted the colour jpeg to b&w for this exercise; while both photos are full of shadow areas, the colour of the sky adds interest and lifts the image. Image 1 shows the repetitive pattern of the sweet jars in the shop window and doesn’t miss the colour.
  • Without colour there is no obvious feeling of temperature in the images – they tend to appear cold unless light and warmth are signified. B&W Image 2 – showing a bankrupt book shop – has a heightened atmosphere of gloom that would not be present in a colour version.
  • Colour allows another level of connection or contrast between elements within the frame, like in image 2, where there is a connection between the reds in the display of the shop window and of the lady’s jumper. Or, the KFC sign and the sunset.
  • Colour can grab your attention – in image 4) the bright red for sale sign in the middle of the image draws us in. This image also shows a greater dynamic range than is possible with b&w.
  • The removal of colour from images that include no colour of interest allows the viewer to concentrate on form or texture in the image. An example is photo 8, of Café Nero’s facade in the dimming light. The image is simplified by the removal of colour.
  • As we don’t see the world in black and white, B&W images can appear more interesting (less every-day).


Are war images necessary to provoke change?

Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change? Do you agree with Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses? Read your answer again when you’ve read the next section on aftermath photography and note whether your view has changed. (OCA C&N)

Don McCullin explains in the eponymous documentary of his life as a war photographer that he wanted show people the horror of war and send an anti-war message. He believed that the photos of Vietnam were instrumental in turning public opinion against the war and felt that the US military held the journalists and photographers responsible for this. McCullin explains that this was the last time photographers were allowed the freedom to be close to the action and photography what they wished. In following conflicts (he mentions Afghanistan) the photographers were kept under close control. He poignantly recalls how he was not permitted to travel to the Falkland Islands War with the British forces and feels that was because his direct style of photography was not  wanted – such images could be politically damaging.

James Natchwey’s website’s homepage uses these words  as an introduction:

I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.

War photographers clearly believe in their purpose and why would they otherwise repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way to shoot such photos. But this doesn’t answer the question from a viewer’s perspective.

Paul Mason argues that ‘pictures of war should not only show us what bodies look like. They should educate us about the absurdities, the accidents and pointless killing.’ He makes the point that it is self-evident that gruesome pictures of dead bodies don’t stop wars; we are swamped with such images and still wars continue, people are not deterred from fighting.

I believe that a viewers response to any subject matter can be dumbed if over-exposed to that subject matter – at the other end of the spectrum to war photographs, many people would find their senses dulled to fine art with a not even a full day of visiting galleries. I believe that we do not become numb to pictures that contain powerful messages and make us thing about what has happened. For example pictures of dead corpse after dead corpse are likely to feeling me numb, whereas an image that provides greater understanding  would provoke me into a search for answers and change (for example the piles of spectacles from the victims of Auschwitz, or the children’s toys scattered across the ground in the aftermath of MH17).

My personal response to horrific images of war is not dulled through what I see in the papers, but if it were my job to continually deal with such images, I think my response would become necessarily muted, in order to mentally cope with the images – a psychological response of dissociation. So, in the context of a normal level of exposure to such images, I do not agree with Sontag’s view. Perhaps she attempts to make a direct connection between the lack of action to stop war and the effectiveness of photographs to provoke change, whereas there are many other factors that come into play, with photographs being only a small part of the whole. For example there is the political will of a nation to act against another, whether through sanctions or military means to ultimately bring about peace. I think that without the images, the provocation to initiate change would be greatly reduced.


McCullin (2012).  Directors: David Morris, Jacqui Morris. Frith Street Films
In Association with Rankin Film Productions

James Natchtwey [website]. Available from: http://www.jamesnachtwey.com [accessed 5.10.15]

Mason P (2014) . Horrific pictures of dead bodies won’t stop wars. The Guardian [online]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/23/horrific-pictures-of-dead-bodies-wont-stop-wars [accessed 5.10.15]


Ritchin F (2014). Syrian Torture Archive: When Photographs of Atrocities Don’t Shock. Time [online]. Available from: http://time.com/3426427/syrian-torture-archive-when-photographs-of-atrocities-dont-shock/ [accessed 5.10.15]

Tooth R (2014). Graphic content: when photographs of carnage are too upsetting to publish. The Guardian [online]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/23/graphic-content-photographs-too-upsetting-to-publish-gaza-mh17-ukraine [accessed 5.10.15]

In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)

Martha Rosler is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn. Her work offers powerful social commentary on topics such as ‘bringing the war home’ and ‘the Bower’. In this post I discuss her essay, In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography).

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 17.37.03
Source: nydailynews.com

Rosler examines documentary photography as a photographic practice. Her examination does not end with a positive message – ‘we do not yet have a real documentary’.

Rosler takes a historical journey through the genre, beginning with a period in the early twentieth century, which she describes as a period of state liberalism and reform, with photography providing social propaganda. She reconstructs the Bowery (a 1970s New York ghetto) in this period and what the role of documentary photography would have been, presenting images for the ‘rectification of wrongs’.  This period came to an end sometime after the end of WW2,  with the ‘New Deal Consensus’ (political/social reform in the US) – Rosler explains that the reform movement become institutionalised, or negotiable within this new framework.  The imperative for reform had become part of a routine, along with the photography that accompanied it.

Rosler moves on to explore ‘victim photography’, in which documentary photography is used to convey images of poverty and famine to affluent society through newspapers and glossy magazines; often accompanied by a request to support or help through charity. She explores how these images can cease to become news (presumably because they are pervasive) and how instead the news becomes testimony to the bringer of the news – the photographers brave enough to put themselves in harms way to capture the images and saving us the trouble.

The essay explores the complexities interpretation that occur when documentary photography takes on an aesthetic dimension, including Dorethea Lange’s iconic image of a mother and baby taken in 1936. The photo became one of the most reproduced images in the world, but the subject (Florence Thompson) who it was designed to help was unable to obtain a single dollar:

That’s my picture hanging all over the world, and I can’t get a penny out of it.

The essay is thick with language and references, which makes it challenging to read. However the model of the documentary photography having two moments, is particularly insightful:

(1) the “immediate,” instrumental one, in which an image is caught or created out of the stream of the present and held up as testimony, as evidence in the most legalistic of senses, arguing for or against a social practice and its ideological-theoretical supports, and (2) the conventional “aesthetic-historical” moment, less definable in its boundaries, in which the viewer’s argumentativeness cedes to the organismic pleasure afforded by the aesthetic “rightness” or well-formedness (not necessarily formal) of the image.

Rosler explains how the secondment moment has encouraged a new generation of photographers who are more interested not the reform of life, but in knowing it; ‘Their work betrays a sympathy (almost an affection(for the imperfections and the frailties of society.’

The end message of failure for the genre seems to be the more that the photos become valuable commodities, displayed in galleries, the more distant they become from their purpose of analysing society and acting as a catalyst for change. There is incongruity in an image created to show the reality of social injustice then being exchanged as a high value commodity, with the subject of the photograph left in the same poor condition.

There is much uncomfortable truth in Rosler’s words. We are now surrounded by images of poverty, war and injustice – it is difficult not just feel numb at the sight of most them. We are over-loaded.

Rosler M (1981). In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography). Available from: http://web.pdx.edu/~vcc/Seminar/Rosler_photo.pdf [accessed 27.9.15]
Martha Rosler [website]. Available from: http://martharosler.net/index.html [accessed 27.9.15]

Exercise – Eye Witness

Are these pictures objective? Can pictures ever be objective?

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 09.33.46
source: mirror.co.uk

This image was purported to show jihadists infiltrating groups of refugees, in confrontation with German police. Vice.com’s research found that it is in fact a picture showing clashes at an anti-Islam rally in 2012 in Bonn, Germany (a different time, different place, different event). The image was falsely captioned by right-wing organisations to promote anti-refugee sentiment. Vice’s article, ‘Calling Bullshit On the Anti-Refugee Memes Flooding the Internet’, shows a number of similar images.

Source: independent.co.uk, EPA
Source: independent.co.uk, EPA

‘A man is carried by Italian police in Ventimiglia, Italy. Police reportedly removed refugees from under a railway bridge, June 2015’. This image is impossible to understand without its context – was the refugee doing something illegal, forcing the police to take action? Was this unprovoked police brutality? From the picture alone, we do not know. Even if we were eye witnesses of the event, it would not be easy to understand the full facts. Truth is a difficult thing to find.

Source: theguardian.com
Source: theguardian.com

This image shows a moment of love in amongst the despair.  The context provided by the newspaper (a quality newspaper) story leaves the reader in little doubt that this was a genuine, spontaneous moment. Though one can easily imagine a different subtext in a less humanist context. For example, there is another image of refugees taking selfies after arriving safely ashore – the context in the Daily Mail was that they were like a bunch of holiday-makers, casting doubt on whether their plight was genuine.

Pictures (or any form of information) can rarely be taken at face-value. The truth is complex and arguably unattainable. We all have complex systems of belief’s and values that affect our perspectives and cause bias. When considering a photograph, we need to understand the biases of the photographer, the news media providing the context, as well as our own. We can investigate and challenge the veracity of an image by asking questions of its narrative (what is within the frame) and it’s context (the many external factors affecting our perception). But objectivity is an allusive quality, to which I believe we can only approximate.

At a practical level, the questions to ask of the context and narrative can be framed around the simple mnemonic, 5WH; who, why, what, when, where, how?Keep asking and one can at least arrive at a near objective understanding of a photograph. It is inconceivable to me that a photography on its own can be objective.


Daily Mirror (16.9.15) [online]. Truth behind picture claiming to show Syrian refugees waving ISIS flag in German. Available from:  http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/truth-behind-picture-claiming-show-6447418 [accessed 27.9.15]

Guardian online (22.9.15). A kiss knows no boundaries. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2015/sep/22/kiss-knows-no-borders-photographing-refugee-couple-budapest [accessed 27.9.15]

The Independent (nd) [online]. The refugee crisis in pictures. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/refugee-crisis-saudi-arabias-offer-to-build-200-mosques-in-germany-for-syrian-refugees-branded-10511850.html [accessed 27.9.15]

Vice.com (10.9.15) [online]. Calling Bullshit On the Anti-Refugee Memes Flooding the Internet. Available from: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/kleinfeld-refugee-memes-debunking-846 [accessed 27.9.15]