Photography has often been linked to objectivity, cited as the closest thing in art to a ‘true’ representation of ‘reality’ — ‘proof’, a ‘reliable witness’, having ‘been there’, from the ‘spectator’s viewpoint’. Yet, this notion is incongruous — photographic outcomes are based entirely on the subjectivity of the image maker.
Journalistic ethics codes consistently dictate a need for authenticity. Photojournalists images must reflect reality, and be free from bias. They must never mislead the viewer by manipulation. Breaking the rules has consequences. A number of images were disqualified during the 2015 World Press photo competition, because of excessive digital processing and manipulation.
Intentionally altering, or staging events is unacceptable, too. Santiago Lyon, the vice president of photography for The Associated Press, said to the New York Times Lens Blog, “there is another type of image manipulation — when a photographer orchestrates a scene to fit his or her own narrative by asking the subject(s) to do things they would not ordinarily do… It is the visual equivalent of fabricating quotes in a written story, and it has no place in journalism.”
Steve Leiss, Associate professor of Media at Endicott College and former photographer for Time Magazine, questions whether ‘candid’ equals ‘truth’. “It’s comforting and seductive. But it’s simplistic, in my view. I would respectfully submit that a directed picture can sometimes convey a greater truth about a subject than a candid picture. We aren’t surveillance cameras. We’re thinking photojournalists searching for truth… Sometimes as a direction, not a finite end. And we’re often limited by practical considerations of time and access. We’re called upon to make judgments all the time and, whether we want to admit it or not, we affect the scenes we photograph by our presence.” Leiss says.
Then there is the subjectivity of the image makers to consider. What happens when photographers and editors, propagate stereotypes? Media scholars often show that news biases certain types of subjects and coverage over others. Galtung and Ruge first described how news values, or “newsworthiness”, determine how much prominence a story is given by a media outlet.
Is there perhaps a reluctance by image makers to consider objectivity in relation to our own lived experiences, prejudices and expectations?
Before an image reaches its viewer, it passes through countless filters. On a technical level, these can be camera choice; lens and focal length; shutter speed and depth of field; proximity to the subject; and light direction. On a personal level, consider the gender; sexuality; race; social class; personal interests; relationship to the subject; and mental health of the photographer. On a cultural level, aesthetics also matter. A strong composition will influence not only the selection of one image over another but also how successful the image will be in communicating its intended message to its audience. Photographers seek to in evoking some sort of emotion or connection with their viewer. Susan Sontag once wrote, “Those who stress the evidentiary punch of image-making by camera have to finesse the subjectivity of the image-maker.”
Subjects realize this. They pose for photographs performatively in to ensure the photographer get ‘their best side’.
Then there is the organizational culture of the news organization itself—the preferences of photo editors, journalists, advertisers, publishers—all of which, come into play deceptively nuanced in invisible ways.
Ethics codes consistently emphasize ethics on a micro level (per photo/story) — effectively, don’t stage, don’t manipulate, don’t over process. Yet they rarely provide context on how to approach ethical coverage as a whole, and over time. This is significant because trends that bias a particular group, or narrative, have the potential to shape the way the public understands and remembers broader issues affecting their communities.
Surely viewers, photographers, and editors must realize that photojournalism is as much about exploitation and aesthetics as it is about promoting the fourth estate.