In Search of a Processing Boundary

Scott Alexander at American Photo has a post up on how far is too far when it comes to processing images, including a set of before-and-after images to study. The images, at the top of the page, are … startling.

The toning on two of them is, to me, completely reasonable. The other two … well … what do you think?

I do like how the article differentiates between manipulation – the altering of content – and processing – the toning of the image. Though I do feel that over-processing can lead to the same effect as manipulation.

Stanley Greene, a photojournalist and one of the founders of the NOOR collective, put it clearly, saying that photomanipulation takes photojournalists “down a dark road,” and that “we are the messengers, we are the seekers of the truths, we must be the ones that show the light in the darkest corners of the world. When viewers can no longer trust the picture or the photographer taking it, we are nothing but tricksters.”

My concern is with, say, the included images out of South Sudan or Turkey – if I were there, is that what I would see? If a reporter wrote about the dark skies and deep shadows on a milky, overcast day, would we be offended? If they wrote about ominous clouds when there were none, would we trust them?

Do we leave images alone, displaying them exactly as they came out of the camera, trusting that the white balance and tone compression algorithms created by the camera manufacturers are accurate? Do we process the image to bring it in line with what we saw while on the scene? Do we alter it to evoke the mood we felt as we covered the story?

That latter thought is where I see a lot of photographers going and that troubles me – as photojournalists, our job is to capture what happened, not to evoke a mood. Our job is to report so others can understand, not to persuade them through the photographic process to feel something. That feeling, that emotional connection, that resonance, must come from the content, not our interpretation of the content.

Mark E. Johnson

1 Response

  1. What I told Clarke Central kids is that once you start changing the content of what comes out of the camera or the scene itself before taking the picture, it becomes a photo illustration (or maybe portrait in some cases). Cropping, color correcting for skin tone and exposure corrections to make it more true to what happened is fine, past that – photo illustration.

    Where in my opinion, it’s not necessarily wrong to make edits that establish a mood… They should definitely be identified as such, which doesn’t always happen. There should also be a really strong reason for doing an illustration, and they should be used sparingly.

    I think of photo illustrations being used more for feature stories in certain situations than general news. With general news, your job is to capture the true emotion and tell what really happened, so why distort that? Features, in some cases, are more about concepts, which may lend themselves more to illustrations.

    “If you walk into a bookstore and ask for nonfiction or fiction, you know what the difference is and what you’ll get.” We need to set a standard regarding the difference between a photo and a photo illustration. But I doubt there will ever be a line drawn due to contradictions in opinions of where exactly that line stands.

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