If you liked documentary work, you are going to love Digital Images PDF
Written by Pedro Meyer   


part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4


We somehow were brought up with the notion that documentary pictures were the equivalent of a testimony that was credible because it was a photograph.


In other words, the very nature of being photographic was a good enough reason for all of us to consider the photograph as a reliable witness of events in our daily life. Because something was depicted in an image we had the firm conviction that things were as we saw them.


After all we could compare that which we saw with that which we photographed and knew that they were identical. Or at least we thought that they were.


So the question is, aren’t they? and as so many other things in life, the answer is ambivalent. Yes and No.


Yes, because there are certain unequivocal equivalents, that make us feel that the comparison holds up, between that which we see and what has been photographed. However, upon closer inspection and scrutiny, we start to find all sorts of loopholes that bring up a high degree of doubt to this otherwise empirical comparison between the photograph and reality.


So what would some of those loopholes, just mentioned, be? For instance, white other than a few cases of visually impaired eyes, and that such black and white photographs are at best, an abstraction of what reality looks like.


Or if you prefer colors, then the same theory applies; what colors are we actually talking about? as all film based images have their specific color bias, and it all depends on who does the printing of a picture what the color actually ends up being.


Another of such loopholes has to do with idea that a photographic image can be self explanatory by just looking at it. We now know that the personal interpretation of the viewer brings to the reading of the image, his or her own prejudices borne out of ideological, educational, psychological or cultural reasons. In other words the photographic image is malleable in what the viewer wishes to read into the image. If you liked documentary work, you are going to love digital images.


Another interesting topic has to do with what we call the manipulation of the image. The traditionalists have it that they go about their work without any sort of manipulation, of course overlooking that the very act of photographing is by it’s very nature already a process of editing and thus an intervention.


The idea that traditionalists defend so vehemently about photographing life as it is found, flies in the face of the very reality they so staunchly defend. Take the instance of photojournalists, who by their very presence with a camera, already alter the behavior of those that they are photographing. People tend to pose, they tend to present themselves as they imagine they look best, either for narcissistic reasons or for political ones. And if you photographed a place devoid of people, no one can deny that the angle from which the image was shot, the sort of lens used, or the time of day, will alter significantly that which we get to see as THE reality.


Even surveillance cameras have a point of view and if you will, a certain aesthetic as well. Although not determined by a photographer because it operates in fully automatic mode, it was nevertheless defined at the time the camera was set it in place for the first time.





In 1996, I gave a key note speech during the opening ceremony of the Fifth Latin American Colloquium of photography in Mexico City, in that presentation I mentioned that surveillance cameras would in fact become the most ubiquitous documentary photographers in the world given the very nature of their work.

Lo and behold a few days later on the front page of one of the main newspapers was precisely such a documentary image, done by a surveillance camera depicting a bank assault.






© Pedro Meyer



Let me elaborate on this documentary image I made some years ago. It is called “ where is the money” which is a translation from Spanish “donde esta la lana” were the word “lana” is both the word for sheep’s wool as well as the slang term for “money”. You can observe that already in a translation from one language to another, the interpretation of what was said in a caption or title, has it’s variations that is nothing to dismiss so lightly.


In the image, I have changed the order of how the picture is presented by altering the right to left order, which I did in order to match the picture of the man with the money. © Pedro Meyer
© Pedro Meyer I made the light be consistent coming in from left to right into the picture and placed the man with the money in such a way that he would not obstruct the view of the sheep being separated from their heads. The original picture I took was with the light coming in from right to left, and I needed it with the light coming from the opposite side. So I simply switched the image along it’s horizontal axis.


In the image with the man, what I did was to cut him out of the picture, so I could place him anywhere it suited me. Just as you do when people are asked to move from one place to another before taking a picture. Or alternatively, the photographer changes his or her place relation to the subject matter.


© Pedro Meyer


You should be aware that all of the components of the final image happened to occur in that same place and time. I took the picture with the woman cutting off the head of the sheep and turned in another direction and photographed the man asking me for money.




In the traditional way of looking at such an image, such practitioners would have no objection if the image in question would had been arranged prior to the click of the camera, For instance, I could have asked the man standing there with the money to turn around and stand in the place the same spot as the final image. Or I could have moved my position from where I was taking the picture. In either case, such practices have never been frowned If you liked documentary work, you are going to love digital images.

upon, or considered to be any sort of manipulation. But the fact is that it is as much a change as what I did after the fact with the computer.




The issue that I think should be foremost on our minds, is in which way would the image I produced alter the information of what the picture conveyed.

If the answer is that the information only enhanced the picture by pulling together two very symbolic elements that in fact took place at that moment in time, then we have a better photograph, not a worse alternative.


What I have often considered quite unsatisfactory about the photographic process, is the importance of luck. Sure one can get lucky and find the confluence, of what my friend Max Kozloff would describe as being the moment when “content and geometry, make an appointment”, but what happens when you don’t have it? So, notwithstanding luck, I can now give preference to the control that I can have over the process, rather than to be solely dependent on luck.





I am perfectly happy to wait for luck to make its singular presence as long as I can do something when it evades me. In other words, luck is no longer the only alternative to coming up with a striking image. To a degree it is taking the control of the studio, out on the streets allowing us to make all sorts of new appointments between content and geometry.


The changes not always have to be very substantial, as in this picture taken in Rio de Janeiro (below). The main alteration I made had to do with the possibility of throwing out of focus the background, something that would normally be very sharp as happens when using wide angle lenses.



© Pedro Meyer


My strategy was to concentrate the gaze of the viewer on the bald head of the woman, eliminating all distracting elements such as spot lights and the detail of people that would only detract from the main character.

Why would this picture be any less documentary than anything done previous to the use of digital images and computers? I don’t think that critics of such images, have really provided enough evidence to show us that the nature of photography has been anything other than enhanced through the process of digital technologies.

This picture was made in London, in the most straight forward traditional way of producing images. With a Leica camera, a very bright lens, negative black and white film which was then scanned.


© Pedro Meyer



But what is that we are looking at? A woman committing suicide? A woman that has been left to die in the bath tub? We really don’t know. All that we can observe is that she is almost drowning and is trying to catch her last breaths of air. What is after all the reality of what we are looking at? My observations are derived from what I am able to see in the image, yet there is one element that will confuse the best of observers, not knowing where the image was taken.


As it turns out it was in a wax museum. And the lady in the bath is a wax figure, a portrayal of a very famous criminal act in London. However, nothing in this documentary picture provides us with the information that the event photographed is only a surrogate. What we believe we are looking at, has nothing to do with the reality behind the picture.


The fact that we can redefine content according to our expectations in a photograph lies at the very heart of why documentary images are really of questionable merit as true evidence of anything.

Digital photography has not changed the nature of documentary work in a negative way, as some would have us believe. On the contrary it has given this genre a new lease on life. We have always had documentary images that were misleading as to their content, there is nothing new in the nature of digital photography that does not have some precedents in the silver halide era or even before.


We should feel good, because there is a fuller awareness by the public of the potential for perverse manipulation of the photographic image (be it digital or analog). The fact that photography is no longer so credible, in a gullible sort of way, should give us pause for celebration, and not a reason to be concerned.


It is good that the photographic image has lost it’s aura of being a totally reliable source of information, something it is not, and never was, all of this lands us in a much safer place. Those in a position of power have to contend with a much more sophisticated audience, and the more damaging forms of exploitation can no longer take it for granted they will be trusted just because they present us with a photograph as evidence of something.


The last time I can recall of someone manipulating a world wide audience with some photographs, was General Colin Powell, at the United Nations, when he presented as evidence for the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq a few pictures that a year later he had to apologize for having done so.

Already at the time of the presentation at the UN, I had written an editorial in ZoneZero, stating that as “evidence” they could not be trusted, given the fact that they were only photographs and therefore subject to manipulated interpretations, which in time would be proven to be just that.




meyer3-11 It was more than thirty years ago that the same thing happened with regard to the alleged attacks by North Vietnam on US battle ships in the Gulf of Tonkin that later led to the war in VietNam. The information that was provided by President Lyndon Johnson, of the US, was all fabricated and repeated and amplified by the press. Those grainy pictures of the day, were part of the evidence that led people to believe in the reliability of the information.
I think we will love digital images for making us grow up and mature in understanding the very nature of documentary photography. meyer3-12





I had just concluded my last remarks for this presentation, when all of a sudden here was yet another huge controversy about the manipulation of photographs, this time by a lebanese photographer Adnan Hajj.


In an article in the New York Times, on August 9, 2006


© Adnan Hajj


“Mr. Hajj, a Lebanese photographer based in the Middle East, may not be familiar to many newspaper readers. But thanks to the swift justice of the Internet, he has been charged, tried and convicted of improperly altering photographs he took for Reuters. The pictures ran on the Reuters news service on Saturday, and were discovered almost instantly by bloggers to have been manipulated. Reuters then announced on Sunday that it had fired the freelancer. Executives said yesterday that they were still investigating why they had not discovered the manipulation before the pictures were disseminated to newspapers.


“The matter has created an uproar on the Internet, where many bloggers see an anti-Israel bias in Mr. Hajj’s manipulations, which made the damage from Israeli strikes into Beirut appear worse than the original pictures had. One intensified and replicated plumes of smoke from smoldering debris. In another, he changed an image of an Israeli plane to make it look as if it had dropped three flares instead of one.

“Still, his activities have heightened the anxiety photo editors are already experiencing in the age of digital photography, when pictures can be so easily manipulated by computer.


“These advances, made broadly available to the public and professional photographers alike through Photoshop or similar software, may have made readers more skeptical of what they see in newspapers.“They doubt the media because they understand what digital photography is,” said Torry Bruno, the associate managing editor for photography at The Chicago Tribune. “Everyone who plays with that knows what can be done.”


“But even as technology makes it easier to manipulate photographs, the blogosphere is making it easier to catch the manipulators.

Mr. Hajj’s picture ran on the news service on Saturday. The first inkling of a problem came in the form of a tip that morning to Charles Johnson, who runs a Web site called Little Green Footballs. Mr. Johnson had been among the first in 2004 to question the authenticity of documents that CBS News used to suggest that President Bush had received favorable treatment in the National Guard.


“It is not clear where the tipster first saw the photos, but they were available on the Internet. Mr. Johnson, who has a background in graphic design, said that as soon as he saw the pictures, he could tell they were fake. He posted the news on his Web site on Saturday at 3:41 p.m. California time (he is based in Los Angeles), which was early Sunday morning in Beirut.

‘The post was spotted by a Reuters photographer in Canada, who quickly notified the editors on duty, and they began an investigation.‘Paul Holmes, a senior Reuters editor who is also responsible for the agency’s standards and ethics, said the agency dealt with the matter within 18 hours.

“By the time I checked my e-mail at 10 Sunday morning, we had killed the doctored photo and suspended the photographer,” he said. The agency subsequently stopped using the photographer and has removed the 920 digital photographs of his in its archives. It is reviewing them to see if any others have been improperly altered.


‘Mr. Hajj told Reuters he was merely trying to remove a speck of dust and fix the lighting in the photos, Mr. Holmes said. Several bloggers have contended that Mr. Hajj was driven by a political agenda, critical of Israel. Mr. Holmes said Reuters was trying to contact Mr. Hajj but he was not responding to messages.


‘Jonathan Klein, the chief executive of Getty Images, said the only way to avoid such problems was to “employ people of integrity, and if you find infractions, not only take action, but take visible action.’’

I of course agree with Jonathan Klein, about the idea of only hiring people of integrity. You have to consider that there are people who can be crooks and be fraudulent in any other walk of life, so why be so surprised that it is happening in the world of photojournalism?e degree of comfort is that the technology available is itself the antidote to resolving such problems, just think at the speed at which these fraudulent images were uncovered and made known world wide.


Next however, we also need to uncover all the double standards and hypocrisy behind the way images are made other than with the computer. Photographers, enticing their subjects to hold up dead babies for the camera, in a flagrant act of creating propaganda in one way or another. Or when the editors pick out pictures to match the texts of what they want to convey as their main message. News organizations have used such means always. If you want a President or leader to look in distress, well, you look around for precisely the image that conveys that, no matter that the image had nothing to do with the story being reported other than it is on the same person. That sort of trickery is never reported as being as false as that of the picture from Lebanon that was so discredited for faking the scene.


As I see it, all forms of manipulation, be that altering the content of the image, altering the caption in relation to what is really happening, or just placing images with texts that match in style but are not a representation of what the event being reported was all about, lead to the same thing. Some one is using the power of the photographic image in a inadequate way. But in parallel to all the other changes that are taking place, the fact that there is manipulation is now coming under scrutiny as never before. That can only be applauded.


Pedro Meyer
Mexico City. August 9th, 2006








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