As photojournalists we must understand that the odds of us being the first to get images of any crisis is almost the same as winning the lottery! Technology has not been our friend when it comes to breaking news. The first pictures of any major story will now come from a citizen with a mobile phone. Our job now is to provide background and context and analysis and to investigative and verify the content we are looking at is not fake.
Photographer Michael Kamber who has covered Iraq and Afghanistan and conflicts in Africa for The New York Times, did an exhibition in 2015 entitled “Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography.”
The exhibit, a selection of well-known images that have been altered, staged or faked, is an indictment of some modern practices, and practitioners, of photojournalism. At a time when veteran photographers are being replaced by newcomers or untrained “citizen journalists,” it also raises important questions about the profession’s future amid increasing doubts about the authenticity of images.
The exhibit, which consists of more than 40 images, catalogs some of the darker moments in the history of photojournalism. And there is enough material to leave many news organizations red-faced: National Geographic for digitally moving the Egyptian pyramids; Time magazine for darkening O. J. Simpson’s skin color; Associated Press and Reuters for moving digitally altered scenes from the Middle East; and The New York Times for publishing a posed photograph in 2002 of a boy holding a toy gun outside an Arabian-foods grocery.
To bring this closer to home, a few hundred yards away from my home and office in Nairobi, Kenya, on 15th January 2019 a group of Al Shabaab terrorists launched a bold afternoon attack on a building complex that housed the international Dusit Hotel as well as dozens of multi-national company offices, banks and restaurants. They went in literally guns blazing at 15:00 on a busy Tuesday and spent more than 18 hours in the complex fighting off Kenyan security forces.
Both local and foreign correspondents were at the scene minutes from when the explosions and gunfire started and many went into the complex both before and with the security forces.
The photojournalists that captured some of the most graphic images of the deaths and destruction have come under immense criticism from the Kenyan public for transmitting these images.
Singled out amidst the criticism was the Bureau Chief and Photo Editor from The New York Times. They published the images of dead patrons slumped over their tables and chairs, laptops open, at the Secret Gardens restaurant. The outcry was vicious from a very active online community in Kenya. The NYT’s response was to defend their Nairobi Bureau Chief and their Photo Editor and they didn’t pull down the images. There is a still an online Twitter campaign to try and get the Nairobi Bureau Chief deported from Kenya. However, Marc Lacey, one of the senior Editors at the NYT and former Nairobi Bureau Chief has said that this incident would cause them to look very hard internally at their guidelines and photo standards.
But the authenticity of the images was never questioned.
Speaking as a photojournalist that has covered conflict around the African continent, I think the images were quite superbly taken under very extreme and high-pressure circumstances. I know some of the photojournalists that were in the complex and who took these images. Had I been there I would have taken exactly the same images without any hesitation.
The outcry was over the ethics of publishing those images.
Kenyans, and Africans in general, have always felt we are always negatively portrayed by the international media and there is an element of “racism” in the way Africans are treated versus how Westerners would be treated in the same circumstances.
The NYT, or any major Western media outlet for that matter, did not publish images of dead bodies from the 9/11 attacks, from the bombings and attacks in London or in Paris, or from school and public shootings that happen on an almost weekly basis in the United States. My question was why did they publish these images so quickly and, when over 9,000 tweets were sent criticising this, why did they so vociferously defend their decision? Is there a difference between African dead bodies and Western dead bodies?
I personally would have no hesitation publishing those images, but I would also have no hesitation publishing images of dead bodies in New York, London or Paris, as this is the reality of a terrorist attack. I am not suggesting the NYT picture editor consciously thought that he or she was crossing some ethical line. But I have known enough photo editors from Western media outlets that subconsciously would differentiate between an African dead body and a Western dead body.
To return to the altering or manipulation of images that would change the meaning or context of the story, this has become increasingly easy to do because of the current technology, and, by the same token, increasingly more difficult to detect again because of the current technology!
Photojournalism students are spending more time learning Photoshop and the digital enhancement of images than they are learning how to actually take good pictures.
In essence they are being taught how to “cheat” in the classroom which is completely against every fundamental I was taught as a photographer from childhood! (Salim’s father was Mohamed “Mo” Amin MBE, a Kenyan photojournalist noted for his pictures and videotapes of the Ethiopian famine that led to the Live Aid concert).
How much does the means by which a photographer arrives at his or her final image really matter? I have heard many photographers being labeled “cheaters” by other photographers over the liberal use of Photoshop to finish an image. For those who see things that way, I guess the perceived overuse of Photoshop invalidates the work as genuine photography and casts it into some other form of art; I look at my father’s photography and I strongly believe that a “real” photograph is made strictly at the moment of capture and that any sort of alterations and enhancements made later amount to lying or cheating.
But how far is too far in terms of manipulating and enhancing photographs? Are we limited to correcting white balance before we begin down the slippery slope of handing over our artistic integrity? Ethics matter, but so do aesthetics. And let us not forget that everything we create as photographers, as artists, is an interpretation of what we see around us. Choice of camera, choice of camera settings, composition; we’re constantly imposing ourselves in one way or another upon “reality.” In this sense, there’s no such thing as absolute truth.
But the manipulation of images to change the meaning, context and representation of the event amounts to fraud in my eyes. I have been privileged to look through hundreds of thousands of images of my father’s work and what strikes me is the raw truth in every photo, the objectivity and honesty with which he portrayed every image he captured.
I do use Photoshop on his work, but purely to clean and touch up any scratches or dirt that are the result of age and inadequate storage, never to alter the context and meaning.
“Different news organizations have different standards and different contests have different standards,” Michael Kamber said. “This is a discussion that we must have before we’ve destroyed all credibility in photojournalism.”
Main image by Brandon Erlinger-Ford on Unsplash