The kerfuffle over the supposedly staged prize winning picture of a wolf is yet another reminder that there is a problem, but the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the problem arises from how we view photography, from what we expect photographs to show or do. Here are some thoughts, which, incomplete as they might be, might lead to something. I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, the wolf might just be a good occasion to do it.
Needless to say, I am sure there are problems with my argument below, as always I’d love to hear what they are. But hopefully, there exists a different approach to all these various image-manipulation scandals than the few days of outrage and anger.
If you’re unfamiliar with the wolf kerfuffle here’s the gist. José Luis Rodriguez won an award for a photo of a wolf jumping over a fence, and now he is being stripped of his prize, because people are convinced that instead of taking a lucky shot of a wild wolf jumping he is supposed to have used a tamed/trained one.
When hearing this, my immediate reaction was to wonder what difference this made. After all, a photo of a wild wolf jumping over a fence looks just like one of a tamed one jumping over a fence. While this might sound naive, I don’t think it is. It points to something: The problem is not the photograph, but the way it was produced. In the kind of lingo that has become so common over the past decade, we were misled.
Even though the kerfuffle centers on the photographer violating the rules of the competition, I think the reason why people are so upset is not because they care about rules so much. I think it is because people wanted to believe that they were seeing one thing, whereas in fact they were seeing another thing. Again, a photo of a wild wolf jumping over a fence would look just like an image of a tame one doing just that. The only difference between the two photos is us knowing that one case is a photo of something that is real (someone waiting patiently for a wild wolf to jump over a fence), whereas the other case is a photo of something that is also real, but that was set up.
So what this all would come down to - this is very similar to the various other “manipulation” scandals that we’ve seen recently - is that people are so angry because they feel their trust was violated. If this interpretation is correct - and I believe it is - we are not dealing with only a photography problem. We are dealing with what we expect from photographs, what we expect them to show, how we expect them to be presented.
Let’s stop here for a second, and let me make a claim: The reason why there have been so many manipulation scandals is not because there has been so much manipulation, it is because everybody has become so suspicious.
We live in a world where we are being bombarded with images on a daily basis. We are visually very literate - we know how to process images very quickly, because we are forced to be able to do that. Many - if not most - of the images around us are designed to make us act in certain ways: Unless you live like a hermit there is advertizing all around us, be it billboards or blinking ads on most web pages. And images have become ever more ubiquitous - as a consequence of the web showing how powerful the use of images is. If we acted on all the impulses that ads create we’d quickly lose all our money (if not our minds), so we need to filter very quickly.
That kind of filtering, of course, gets applied to every image we see. In essence, we are suspicious about photography because we have to be.
Add to that a vastly reduced overall credibility of the media (here is an example), and you get the perfect storm for photography: Any photograph is being viewed by visually very literate people who expect to find something dodgy. I think this model provides a very good explanation why we recently have seen to many image manipulation scandals.
Of course, if my theory is correct then the solution to the various scandals cannot be to impose strict rules for photography, because 1. if someone wants to manipulate an image, they will do it regardless of whether there are rules that tell them not to, and 2. many of those rules are so vague as to be unenforcable. The solution also cannot be to put a frame around each image that will assert “this photo is real” - that would the photographic equivalent of virginity pledge rings for teenagers. Both solutions (the rules and the frames) pretend the problem lies only with the photography, whereas in fact a large part of it concerns what we expect from photography and from the contexts in which they are embedded.
Remember, we are living in a climate where the media have a massive credibility problem - and those claiming to be most fair and balanced are the ones who are the exact opposite. In such an environment, photography will be viewed with a lot of suspicion, and those very few (inevitable) cases where photographers violate the trust of the viewers will always get blown up to epic proportions.
It is important to realize that in the context of a newspaper, of course the photographers have to be given some rules about what they can do and what they cannot do (and those rules have to be specific enough to make actual sense). But for a newspaper, should a manipulation scandal erupt, the solution to that problem cannot be throw the photographer under the bus and pretend it’s all solved. Instead, the newspaper has to acknowledge that a large part of the problem is that readers are so angry because it’s a trust issue. That trust does not just concern the photographer, it also concerns the newspaper. A newspaper does not regain its readers’ trust by claiming their editors got misled just like everybody else - how much trust are you willing to put into a newspaper whose editors can’t spot a fake image, while lots of “amateurs” on the web can do it easily?
If I’m right with the above, the big problem is that there is no simple solution that will magically make everything go away. It seems obvious, though, that we, the viewers/consumers of photography, have to adopt a more realistic attitude towards this art form.
Blatant manipulations of images that were not to be supposed to be manipulated will always happen (just like teenagers will have sex, regardless of whether they’re wearing virginity pledge rings or not). We know how to spot these manipulations - that’s good news! - so let’s react to them using what we know about photography, and not what we - unrealistically - expect.
The “real” that so many of us to find in photography does not exist. To expect of photography to show us “the facts” is not a good idea. It doesn’t work in such a simple way (and we know that it doesn’t, because photographs in advertizing do not show us the facts about the products at all). Photographs are produced by photographers who make choices, who have points of views just like the rest of us. Instead of asking them to deliver something that is “real”, we need to learn how to deal with what they can deliver.
We need to learn how to approach images.
We need to learn how to deal with how images are presented (Errol Morris has been blogging about this particular aspect in a lot of detail).
We need to learn how to deal with what we expect images to do.
We need to learn how to deal with what we wish images would or could do.
We need to learn how to deal with our mistrust concerning images all around us.
And we need to learn that it is up to us to learn this about images, that we cannot, no, must not rely on others to tell us that all is good and we needn’t worry.
The “real” we so desperately are trying to find in photography - isn’t that just another kind of certainty we are craving for in a world that has seemingly become so uncertain?
What this means for the wolf is that if the photographer indeed staged the photo and if this violates the rules of the competition then, sure, he needs to be stripped off his prize. But it’s really not such a big drama, is it?