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Author Topic: Ethics and integrity in documentary photography  (Read 7593 times)

feppe

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Ethics and integrity in documentary photography
« on: September 19, 2010, 08:05:41 AM »

I'm considering starting a rather massive urban outdoor documentary photography project - details on that at a later date when I've determined its feasibility and logistics involved. I did a test run, shooting several subjects and loaded the files into Lightroom. Usually I would not allow myself to be constrained in cropping, dodging/burning, curves, levels, etc. But as the project I'm about to start is first and foremost for documenting a contemporary urban environment in its unadulterated raw state, there are certain ethics I should be aware of when shooting, as well as keeping the integrity of the photos themselves. So before I start shooting, culling and processing I need to take a deep breath and change my approach.

I've never done documentary photography or photojournalism, so I would appreciate any pointers on what's allowed and what's not, and what should be avoided. I'm not only referring to post-processing, but also the process of shooting, and picking the keepers (culling). I understand that in PJ work cropping and spotting are generally not allowed, especially if it changes the photograph's message. Also, extensive curves or other manipulation is probably something to be avoided. Anything else?

michswiss

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Re: Ethics and integrity in documentary photography
« Reply #1 on: September 19, 2010, 08:38:53 AM »

As someone with one long-term project somewhat finished, I'd start with just going out and begin to get to know your potential subjects.  Also, start shooting a lot in the area at various times of the day and night to test out what works for lighting and compositions. 

As far as post-work, I think the primary thing is to not add or remove elements from the final frame that distorts the reality of the scene.  Basically, don't start cloning stuff away that you don't like.  Otherwise, there's nothing sacrosanct about cropping or cleaning up dust spots.  Is it cropping if you choose to use a 50mm vs a 20mm to isolate the subject while eliminating the environment?  Composition still matters and it also depends on the story you want to tell.  But, cropping to tell a different story than the one that's happened in frame isn't good.  Also, don't get hung up on remaining dispassionate.  It's not possible to completely remove yourself from the final product.

Oh, and if your experience is anything like mine, the editing and ordering of the images into a story is long and arduous.  It was very helpful to have a large clear floor where I could throw prints out and play with it.  Sort of a glorified light board.

Have fun.

Gary Brown

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Re: Ethics and integrity in documentary photography
« Reply #2 on: September 19, 2010, 08:53:43 AM »

While not specifically about photojournalism, I thought Michael Reichmann's essay on those topics is interesting:

Cloning Out the Can: Where Do You Draw The Line?
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feppe

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Re: Ethics and integrity in documentary photography
« Reply #3 on: September 19, 2010, 09:36:48 AM »

While not specifically about photojournalism, I thought Michael Reichmann's essay on those topics is interesting:

Cloning Out the Can: Where Do You Draw The Line?

The can example is quite appropriate, as on my scouting shoot I captured three swans on a canal, with an empty plastic bottle floating around them. Even if I don't consider cloning the bottle out, I could have waited for them to swim away from it, or kept it as is. I captured the shot as is, with the bottle near them, but it's a good example of how grey the issue can be.

Joe Behar

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Re: Ethics and integrity in documentary photography
« Reply #4 on: September 19, 2010, 10:41:27 AM »

Just because you're documenting does not mean you can't be creative.

I'm with the camp that says you really shouldn't clone things out (except maybe dust spots), put things in (like a sign or person that was not there) or change the shape or size of anything in the photo after its been shot.

Other than that I really don't see the issue with curves, levels, crops and colour adjustments.

If you shoot on a cloudy day and make no adjustments at all, then repeat on a bright sunny day, you're going to get different tonalities...is one more "ethical" or has more "integrity" than the other?

Be true to yourself. If you feel uncomfortable in making a change, don't do it. If you are OK with it then go right ahead.

No matter what you do, you're going to have someone tell you that you were wrong :) Ignore all that and follow your gut.

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RSL

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Re: Ethics and integrity in documentary photography
« Reply #5 on: September 19, 2010, 11:54:37 AM »

Feppe, Looks as if you're getting good advice in this thread. Pay attention to Jennifer (michswiss). The bottom line is: Don't make changes that change the meaning of the situation. Cloning out the can changes the meaning because it changes the environment. Color or tone changes? Probably won't change the meaning unless you do something like make a daylight shot look like a night shot, which is easy to do. The all-time classic fakery was when Stalin had Trotsky removed from the pictures of early Bolshevik gatherings. There's a fascinating article about this at http://www.tc.umn.edu/~hick0088/classes/csci_2101/false.html. If you go there, be sure to scroll to the bottom so you can see how Time magazine, in Time's usual unbiased reportage style, handled a cover picture of O.J. Simpson. According to the caption: 'The photographer that manipulated the picture said that he "wanted to make it more artful, more compelling."' Don't try to make your pictures more "artful" or more "compelling" after the fact. Put the art and force in when you snap the shutter.

Slobodan Blagojevic

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Re: Ethics and integrity in documentary photography
« Reply #6 on: September 19, 2010, 12:21:13 PM »

... Don't try to make your pictures more "artful" or more "compelling" after the fact. Put the art and force in when you snap the shutter.

As with most other things in life, it is not so simple. There are great documentary photographs that "changed the world", yet were extensively enhanced to be more "artful" and "compelling".

A case in point:

Eugene Smith' photograph  Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath: (http://www.masters-of-photography.com/S/smith/smith_minamata_full.html) depicts a mother bathing her daughter, a victim of mercury poisoning.

Smith used Farmer's Reducer (a chemical method of dodging), to bring back the whites, after significantly burning the photograph to almost black for  "artful" and "compelling" impact.

RSL

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Re: Ethics and integrity in documentary photography
« Reply #7 on: September 19, 2010, 01:33:41 PM »

Slobodan, Yes, Gene Smith was a very effective propagandist. He was a fantastic photographer, but he was never an unbiased reporter. He did the same thing with his Haitian asylum shoot that nearly brought Magnum to its financial knees, with his moving story on Maude Callen the nurse midwife, with his Schweitzer shoot, etc. The nearest thing to actual reportage by Gene in those Life magazine spreads was "Country Doctor." Most of the others weren't reportage; they were advocacy. Maybe I've misread Feppe, but from what he said, I gather he's out to do reportage, not advocacy. Stalin probably should have hired Gene. He was a lot better darkroom technician than the klutzes who erased Trotsky.

feppe

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Re: Ethics and integrity in documentary photography
« Reply #8 on: September 19, 2010, 01:46:03 PM »

Thanks for all the tips, very helpful!

Maybe I've misread Feppe, but from what he said, I gather he's out to do reportage, not advocacy.

You read me correctly. I'm trying to avoid advocacy, other than promoting appreciation for historic scenes and documenting them for posterity. Thankfully my subject matter is hardly controversial, although you never know these days what people get worked up about :P

The OJ cover is a good example of a rather benign manipulation which completely changes the tone of the photo. It looks like it's mostly achieved with dodging and burning, which on paper is not very, but the example goes to show that even the most basic processing can change the message.

BFoto

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Re: Ethics and integrity in documentary photography
« Reply #9 on: September 19, 2010, 04:37:48 PM »

A series of what may appear on the surface as boring images can be some great work. Why manipulate the scene.

eg: http://www.london-photographic-association.com/site/lightbox1_compsw.php?user_id=1499&entry_id=7411&series_f=1&coid=44&fid=0

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Re: Ethics and integrity in documentary photography
« Reply #10 on: September 24, 2010, 07:44:21 AM »

The choice of focal length, choice of shutter speed, choice of aperture, choice of lighting (when in the day to shoot), the choice of composition.  All these and more have an impact on the final image.  All these and more can change the message or intent of the image long before it gets into the digital darkroom.  These choices craft the story the images tell the way you want to tell it.  While the intent may not be advocacy it's nigh on impossible not to engage in advocacy to some extent.  Even subconsciously.

If preserving the purity of the shots is of utmost importance then do nothing to them after the fact.  Don't crop.  Don't clone dust spots.  Don't convert to b&w.  Don't adjust colour or contrast.  Nothing. 
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Rob C

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Re: Ethics and integrity in documentary photography
« Reply #11 on: September 24, 2010, 04:07:32 PM »

Bob

But that's not preserving the integrity of anything; failing to use equipment to make the image as well as it can be done is pointless. The real 'editing' is done by the snapper's mind at the moment of going click! After that, you can either produce a good print/image/transmission/whatever with your skills or just a bad one by depending upon the camera itself to play editor and final arbiter of the product.  Photo by Robot.

;-)

Rob C
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