Just in case you are wondering, this is not a post about digital editing. The colours of the sky and the water in the above photograph may have been ever so slightly corrected, but this is most definitely not a post about digital manipulations.
The opening image is a photograph I took somewhere in the Western Isles of Scotland while on commission for Visit Britain, formerly known as the British Tourist Authority. It was the product of a very detailed and constricting photographic brief which above everything else emphasized the fact that all the photographs should be taken in sunny conditions – this is the Scottish islands we are talking about.
A few years later, and not far from where the above photograph was taken, I took the photograph below.
This time the context of the image was a feature on crofting in the Western Isles of Scotland. I had no pre-established brief and the images would be an unbiased portrayal of a place and its crofting community.
Or so I thought at the time, which was, quite frankly, rather naive. It is very clear to me now that vision and intention make the photograph and the story, not the subject matter itself. The second photograph has a strong emotional content; I knew that when I took it and I was hoping that viewers would pick it up. I wanted to show a harsh landscape to support my own experience of the harsh life of the crofter.
Is what I did tantamount to manipulation? or is it that I made the most of the inherent open meaning of the photographic image?
In an inspiring article on reportage photography published in Foto8 magazine a few years ago, Witold Krassowski made some very pertinent remarks on some of the weaknesses of the photographic image:
“[the photographic image] is no good at documenting a process, it cannot explain, analyse or make a prognosis. In fact, it is very limited. But one action it can perform brilliantly: it can influence human emotions. The mechanism is based both on recognition and the ability to disturb.”
The ‘recognition’ mechanism that Krassowski talked about is even more powerful in photographs of people. That recognition can be a comforting feeling of common humanity or, on the contrary, distressing as something totally alien to the viewer’s own experience of life – hence its ability to disturb.
The two sets of images below have been used by the same organisation, Survival International, for essentially the same purpose: in defence of tribal peoples. The different contexts in which the images were used determined the type of recognition – or the lack of it – that the viewer was expected to experience.
The images used for the Christmas Cards published by Survival International tap the myth of the noble savage and unspoilt natural environments, something that most viewers are likely to react to positively. The Pan-Arctic peoples theme works well, even though it reduces and simplifies the complexities of markedly different cultures such Siberian Nenets and Greenland’s Inuits (for a grittier view of the Nenets of the Yamal peninsula, and a visual counterpoint to these Christmas cards, have a look at Hedi Bradner’s images.)
The B&W photograph below was also used by Survival International in a booklet explaining the challenges that indigenous peoples face today ( worth downloading if only to see how images can be used for strategic purposes). It shows a young Innu child from northern Labrador sniffing petrol. The image is meant to shock the viewer: we don’t recognize – in Krassowski’s terms – a type of life experience that is familiar to us. It disturbs us.
In the above images the viewer’s reaction is clearly built in the image; these photographs perform a pre-designed task. They don’t allow the viewer to experience feelings other than those which have been engineered at source.
Is this ‘photo manipulation’ I wonder? If it is, it is not the image that is being manipulated. Or is it?