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Photo manipulations

© Jose Navarro

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.

© Jose Navarro

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.
© Survival International

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.)
© Survival International

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?


Posted by author: Jose
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52 thoughts on “Photo manipulations

  • I’ve just been reading some Barthes about denoted and connoted readings of images (or texts), and this is very much what is going on here. The photographer taps into what our is basically our cultural upbringing to direct us to read the image in a particular way, they’re playing on us to get the desired reaction (how distressing – I need to help somehow, how noble and proud, how nice – I’ll buy one of those).
    The top photograph of Scotland is there to say “hey, the weather’s lovely and so is the countryside, come on up here and spend your money”, the aim being to quash the stereotyped “grim up north” opinion in the minds of the greater population. Just like in Scotland, it always rains in Manchester… In my opinion, the second (crofter) image is far more interesting, I feel I can appreciate the rugged highlands (again, a cultural stereotype) far more than the first image.
    Yes, we’re being manipulated. And it’s been going on for a long time.

  • We have all been manipulated by media and other mediums far too long that we care to admit. It’s inbuilt in our systems; we manipulate friends, mothers, sons, husbands etc. from an early age. I think it is down to the fact of survival whether it is coherent to how we live today perhaps not or certainly not compare to indigenous people of certain areas but it is something we do as individuals. The image will be manipulated in order to manipulate the viewer into seeing what the photographer either saw or wants to show. My questions are; how often do we want to be manipulated? And how far are we letting media manipulate us? Are we happy knowing that we are being manipulated? My own answers differ depending on my mood.

  • A photograph void of power to manipulate or subjectivity, does it exist? Maybe therein lies its beauty too.
    Having commissioned photography for a tourism organisation in the past Jose is absolutely right. The prerequisite was that the images were ‘sunny’ and any clouds evident had to be the fluffy ‘care-bear’ variety. It used to be an ongoing joke that frustrated the photographers no end at the time (serendipity eh!!).
    But when booking holidays, seeing images of choppy waters, cloud-ridden skies and grumpy wet tourists just didn’t do it. Unfortunately research tells us chocolate box and/or aspirational imagery sells holidays – people have ample ‘real’ life. The people in the landscape had to be ‘aspirational’ too – you can imagine!!! But tourism is like any other consumer product, it has the same conditional demands of advertising.
    As you say intent is critical and what is so ironic is the same viewers could see the two images side by side, the first in a visit Scotland ad and the second in a feature on the opposite page about crofting and yet because the intention is different would be viewed not in conflict but appreciated for what they are. We seem to accept different levels of manipulation depending on its purpose.
    I guess that is why many of the personal projects photographers or artists come up with can be the most interesting and reflective of the person as they are uncompromised and unconditional.

  • Photography is subjective. Chris Anderson from Magnum said he prefers to be called an editorialist and not a photojournalist as he can only photograph his version of events rather than some kind of noble truth.
    Of course there will be always be further editorial decisions taken down the line be it by a picture editor or gallery curator to give their spin on things.
    In the end some responsibility also has to lie with the viewer to seek out other points of view to inform their own opinion. Trusting one source, be it a photograph, video or text, is rarely going to give you a balanced view. But of course how important that is depends on what you’re looking at, a holiday brochure is slightly different to say a news report. Unless you happen to be booking a holiday to Cairo at the moment.

  • The reason clients are prepared to pay a lot of money for photography is its power to be ‘economical with the actualité’ and yet still convince; sometimes in contradiction of your own eyes and experience, by appealing to your wishful thinking.
    As a photographer the more control you can exercise over the medium and its message, and that doesn’t just mean in operating the camera, it also means in pre-production and post-production, the more you are likely to get paid when someone asks you to do it on their behalf.
    I’ve done a lot of food photography for cook/chill packaging over the years, for all the major supermarkets, and it’s my belief that people eat the picture on the box that made them buy the product rather than what arrives on their plate, as the two often bear scant resemblance.
    If we photographed what the plate actually looked like when it was served up sales would probably fall through the floor.
    What we’re selling is the dream of eating an idealised version of it.
    That’s not to say that there’s anything in the photograph that’s not on the plate.
    It reminds me of Eric Morecambe saying to Andre Previn, “I’m playing all the right notes—but not necessarily in the right order.” ‘ }

  • As Mark has pointed out Photography is subjective. An image is conceived and directed by the photographer, whether under instruction from another source or not. However, it is translated by the viewer. Sometimes it is the context in which the image is placed that influences the viewer, sometimes it is the viewers own experience or lack of it. Perhaps what I see when I look at photos of African babies playing in the dirt, is different to what you see, maybe because I’ve been there and know what was happening around that blink on an eye that the image show. Is that manipulation ? I don’t believe anyone can take a totally impartial image, I don’t believe there is such a thing, therefore all photographs can be said to be manipulated as it’s down to the photographer what to include, what point of view what lighting and the moment to press the shutter. It’s all a matter of degree, and perhaps intent ?

  • Interesting that Jose & Yiann refer to ‘manipulation’ whilst ‘marmalade’ and Clive talk about ‘selling’. Someone else might say ‘getting a message across’ or ‘communicating’, and so on. We put different interpretations on the power of the image to influence behaviour depending on how we percieve the purpose and the message. None of us likes to feel we have been manipulated; many of us will resist being sold to; but we all like to look forward to a happy holiday in sunny Scotland!

  • It’s interesting that you should make that distinction Stan because it harks back to the two series on the U.S. administrations.
    In one I saw a photographer dissecting his subject, in the other a photographer solving his client’s problem.

  • Clive, I take it you’re referring to Avedon’s ‘The Family’ & Kander’s ‘Obama’s People’ that we discussed elsewhere? And I would agree with that comparison.
    In the context of this thread, perhaps the Avedon portraits, in which he is getting under the skin of ‘power’ have more scope to be manipulative, whereas the Kander images, which tend more to reflect ‘power’ have less. However, Kissinger might feel that his portrait by Avedon was manipulative, whereas Avedon (and maybe you and I) might see it as telling the truth. Then again, some will interpret the Kander series as ‘selling’ the Obama administration; as being used by ‘the client’ to ‘sell’ a story.
    My point was really that the word ‘manipulation’ seems to have negative connotations, whereas we may merely be observing the power of the image to influence. Some images have more scope for varied use/influence, of course. Jose’s reference to the ’emotion’ in his second image reflects that, I think. In the right context, you could use that image to ‘sell’ a holiday in Scotland, just as it can be used to reflect the hardship of Scotland’s heritage, etc etc.

  • Yes Stan, perhaps the fact that images have the power to influence is the stratum that these two outcrops arise from.
    What maybe differentiates them is, as Anna points out, the intention; to which I would add the qualification of whose intention.
    In José’s examples, in the first case it was the client’s intention and in the second his own.
    From the photographer’s point of view, this is the difference; if not from the viewer’s point of view, who can read it as two attempts to be equally manipulative, if in different directions.
    This is can be a dilemma for some working photographers; should they hire out their persuasive abilities to communicate someone else’s message, perhaps sometimes in contravention of their own philosophy of the image.

  • For me there is a glaring omission from the discussion. In the two photographs you have a clients view of the area and a photographers view of the area. Nowhere do we have a view of the crofters view of the area.
    The crofter wouldnt necessarily recognise the blue skies, they may also not recognise the post box – why would they need a post box? Does it feature in their everyday lives? Probably not.
    Going to the tourist board photo, its a straight photo, manipulating the view would be to have a young family picnicing on the bench or an elderly couple sitting having a cup of tea. Artificially creating a scene, which may or may not be plausible but which will always represent an idealised view of the world.
    Clive alludes to this, if I were to photograph Ireland as it is, the vast majority of images would be from the inside of glass with rain hitting it. That would also be doing peoples memories a disservice.
    One analogy I often make is in cgi filmmaking. The introduce lens flare into cgi – why? Theres no lens involved? Its to make people think its ‘real’ that a real lens is involved, despite lens flare being an artificial element introduced to a scene.
    It is important to emphasise that even in our own photographs we bring our own message and experience, we put our own views on things which may not be instantly recogniseable to those more familiar with the scenes.
    To that extent we are also manipulating the viewer, we are giving our experience and view rather than the actuality.
    In an editorial commercial sense the real skill is producing a series of images which can mean all things to all people.
    Although quite often that brief is followed by the words ‘this message will self destruct in 10 seconds…’ Cue Lalo Schifrin

  • ‘One analogy I often make is in cgi filmmaking. The introduce lens flare into cgi – why? Theres no lens involved? Its to make people think its ‘real’ that a real lens is involved, despite lens flare being an artificial element introduced to a scene.’
    An excellent illustrative point Joe. In some ways we photographers are ‘experts’ in the representation of the ‘real’, and the stage managing of it.
    We know the sorts of visual clues that can suggest authenticity in a completely staged image by playing with people’s expectations of a staged image, such as simulating punctum; something that an art director wouldn’t think to draw into his visual.
    Maybe it’s just a bit of litter in the corner of the frame, or perhaps it’s letting something happen at random in an otherwise controlled frame so that the authentic event legitimises the inauthentic, or Joe’s example of reinforcing the technical expectation with flare.

  • Joe Fox said “The crofter wouldnt necessarily recognise the blue skies, they may also not recognise the post box – why would they need a post box? Does it feature in their everyday lives? Probably not.”
    Am I missing something here? I thought this was about documenting present day crofting. Why would a crofter not recognize the blue skies? If you live somewhere you see it in all weathers, including sunny with fluffy clouds. And why on earth would crofters not need a postbox as much as anyone else? Crofters are not an alien tribe cut off from the rest of the world – they would need a postbox to post mail, as we all do!

    • I think the post box in Jose’s photo is a symbol Jen. By showing the house in the distance across the desaturated environment with the postbox in the foreground Jose is seeking to illustrate the remoteness – he says “I wanted to show a harsh landscape to support my own experience of the harsh life of the crofter” The postbox as a symbol of a connection to wider society is given pride of place – a third in, two thirds up.
      What I take Joe to be saying is that both photographs draw attention to very specific features, the far from common blue sky and the small detail of the post box. I don’t think he is literally saying that crofters never use post boxes, rather that they form part of the insignificant surroundings in which they live their lives. There is a post box 50 yards from my front door and I can’t ever remember discussing it with anyone – then again I am awash with services in inner-city Sheffield. For Jose the post box is symbolic of an isolation which he feels keenly as a visiting photographer, but that the crofters may take for granted.

      • I don’t think they are being criticised for being critics (at least I hope not) but their criticisms, their ideas are as much a subject of criticism as the work of those that they in turn criticise.

      • Very succinctly put Peter and it saved me rambling on, which I don’t have time for as I’m being called away on family business, for some indeterminate time, when it gets light.
        Of course everyone and any one is free to criticise and they do don’t they? ‘}
        (Hope this lands in a place that makes sense. ‘} )

      • This is in response to Peter and Clive’s posts, I’m not sure where it will end up. Obviously its a good thing if all ideas (whosever they are) are subject to debate and criticism, because that gives us the opportunity to evaluate the ideas and form our own independent assessments of them. My original post was made because I couldn’t work out what ideas were being criticised specifically. But I expect its just me being dim.

    • ‘Why would a crofter not recognize the blue skies?’
      Ive worked on the irish version of a croft for a week or so.
      I couldnt tell you what colour the skies were during the day. I could tell you what the stars looked like at night though.
      ‘And why on earth would crofters not need a postbox as much as anyone else? Crofters are not an alien tribe cut off from the rest of the world’
      Indeed, I was able to use my mobile and everything. My point (as Gareth alluded to) was that it wasnt part of everyday life (they use email, the same as everyone else).
      Then again thats based on my experience of the equivalent….
      …there is a logical conclusion to this train of thought…

      • Martha Rosler had a lot to say about all this in her show “the bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems” and her piece “in, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)”

      • Indeed Peter.
        But why did she say it when she did?
        Surely the essay serves the same purpose as the photographs?
        Does putting it down in text make it any more believeable? Does it give the argument more credence?
        Isnt that what forum posts and blogging are all about? 😉

    • Sorry Joe, I don’t quite see what you are asking. Apart from anything else, the bogasphere didn’t exist, at least not in any meaningful way when the pieces were mande and it really has very little penetration in art theory circles. there are no research grants for publishing on the web!!

      • I’m enjoying reading Decoys and Disruptions, which includes that piece, in fact I’ve read the essay a few times now in order to try and make sense of the last few comments.
        Anyway as critics seem to come in for a lot of criticism around here I thought I’d add that this one (Martha Rosler) has a camera and uses it.

      • ‘Anyway as critics seem to come in for a lot of criticism around here’
        They are as susceptible to their own critique as everybody else is, and maybe hostage to it. ‘ }

      • Anned et al,
        What do critics hope to achieve with their criticism?
        (its more than a one paragraph answer). What are their motives/drivers to make such criticism?
        Critics sell their criticism, and as such it is a product. That selling may be covert or overt, the criticism may be aimed at a commerical/artistic direction. Its a form of advertising/PR in itself.
        Its a product which is open to criticism as much as anything else.
        Criticism also isnt just a negative word, it is much maligned and misinterpreted.
        ‘Anyway as critics seem to come in for a lot of criticism around here’ So is that a criticism of those who criticise the critics? 😉

      • Thanks for clarifying that Joe, I guess everyone has some sort of motivation for their criticism that we should be aware of when assessing its validity.
        “So is that a criticism of those who criticise the critics?”
        I suppose it was a criticism of those who criticise the critics rather than criticising the critics criticism:)

  • When I look at a photograph I bring along my intelligence and my experience. The latter probably decides my emotional response but I remain a thinking person. If I am looking at a holiday brochure I expect the publisher to have used the best and most positive images available. If the story is about the hard life of a crofter then I do not expect to see a Range Rover and a hot tub shed even if I know that they exist. In other words I use my intelligence and experience to judge on the accuracy of what I am seeing.
    Experience of my holidays in Scotland tells me that it is not sunny every day but when it is there is no better place on earth. I have two strong memories of many holidays in Scotland – one is of a sunny day on the Moray Firth (it was the only one out of the two weeks we spent there) and of a de-roofed crofters cottage some half a mile off the road to Ullapool surrounded by dark brooding mountains. Both were powerful images but neither of them are typical.
    The question “Am I being manipulated?” suggests that it is unlikely because you have demonstrated your ability to make a judgement about the ‘truth’ of an image. To keep banging on about the same thing a photograph is just a piece of paper with printing on. It has no ability to do anything – that only happens when you interpret what you see in your mind. If you are not there nothing happens.

  • I’m reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others at the moment.
    She writes:
    ‘For the photography of atrocity, people want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance’.
    The last part of that sentence reminds me of the Darcy Padilla discussion, it also seems relevant here.
    In the same paragraph Sontag puts forward the argument that photographs of hellish events are considered more authentic if the photographer is either an amateur or has used an ‘anti-art style’, i take anti-art style to mean a photographer who has played down their technical skill to appear as an amateur. She writes ‘By flying low, artistically speaking, such pictures are thought to be less manipulative’.
    But isn’t it manipulative to adopt an amateur style to gain an authentic look? Isn’t the ability to play down your technical skill artistry?

  • ‘used an ‘anti-art style’’
    This is what I mean about using knowledge of what is read as authentic to authenticate the fake.
    Like consciously having telegraph poles growing out of people’s heads, tilting the horizon line for no apparent reason and photographing ‘not the decisive’ moment.
    Oh but hang on that is art style not the anti! Hahahaha

  • I have just spent the last half an hour reading, re-reading and mentally replying to the above thread (‘a diversionary activity’ I hear one tutor say!). My personal opinion is that there is often far too much philosophising about the ‘intent’ and ‘interpretation’ of photographs and I do not think a dissertation is required to draw this thread together – Cedric has said it all when he says that he takes along his ‘intelligence and experience’. If we do that we are not really being manipulated, we are being encouraged to manipulate our own thoughts and emotions.
    Perhaps Clive puts it more succinctly – it is the difference between ‘let the dog see the rabbit’ or ‘let the dog find the rabbit’.

  • I do agree that most people look at images such at the one of the sunny Socttish highlands with a certain inbuilt scepticism. However as Clive and Penny among others have noted, businesses pay a lot for the ‘right’ kind of image to promote their products. A lot of research has been done into the effects of words and images in persuading us to do or feel things at a level beyond our conscious control (and even when we know what is happening) and I don’t think that such enormous sums would be spent on producing this kind of imagery if it didn’t work on some levels at least.
    I think that anything which purports to document a person or place or event inevitably contains an element of subjectivity – theer are so many individual choices to be made. But they interest us because they contain a trace of the thing they document. There’s always some tension between the objective reality of the thing being described and the artist’s subjective viewpoint. Photographs are unique in that by definition the trace is written directly onto the photograohic medium by the light reflecting from the subject. The trace feels much closer and more directly related to the subject than, say, a written article or painting, and this makes photographs potentially more powerful in persuading us that something is ‘real’ or really looked like that.
    Some artists are more concerned with objectivity and some are much more concerned with self-expression. But I don’t think any work is either entirely objective or entirely subjective.
    I think it is important to consider and think about what we are doing and why, so that we understand the potential impacts of the messages we give in our work.

  • ‘There’s always some tension between the objective reality of the thing being described and the artist’s subjective viewpoint.’
    An excellent point Eileen.
    ‘Photographs are unique in that by definition the trace is written directly onto the photographic medium by the light reflecting from the subject. The trace feels much closer and more directly related to the subject than, say, a written article or painting, and this makes photographs potentially more powerful in persuading us that something is ‘real’ or really looked like that.’
    Maybe not so much since digital, Google ‘indexical photography’; no wonder they don’t have time to find out what it’s actually like to take a photograph. ‘ }

      • ‘There’s always some tension between the objective reality of the thing being described and the artist’s subjective viewpoint.’
        But is there such a thing as ‘objective reality’? I suspect that the very act of of observation alters both the objectivity and the ‘reality’ (c.f. uncertainty)

      • Hmmm! Will have to read the whole paper, but after two pages I’m struggling. Where do they get this idea that there is no chemical/physical process involved in the production of digital photographs?
        In a chemical photo light striking a paper starts a chain of physicochemical processes which can be manifested as an image. In a digital photo light striking a sensor causes a chain of physicochemical proceesses which can be manifested as an image. The magnetically aligned particles are stored on a memory card – they’re invisible until we process them. The chemically changed particles are stored on a piece of film – they’re invisible until we process them.
        Digital images aren’t stored as a bunch of ‘0’s and ‘1’s and the ultimately the way we perceive them as images is a physico-chemical reaction in our eyes – just like analog photos.
        I’m guessing there must be more to it than this so I’ll just have to keep reading :0(

      • Nigel, that’s why Barthes might have found it handy to take a snap every now and then. Tehe. ‘ }
        ‘And so castles made of sand… fall in the sea… eventually.’

  • ‘Photographs are unique in that by definition the trace is written directly onto the photograhic medium by the light reflecting from the subject. The trace feels much closer and more directly related to the subject than, say, a written article or painting, and this makes photographs potentially more powerful in persuading us that something is ‘real’ or really looked like that.’
    I agree with this however I do wonder with the advent of digital cameras and the ease in which one can alter, improve or alter the meaning of an image whether the photograph’s value in being a credible ‘authentic document’ has been significantly eroded. I think we, the ‘viewer’ have grown sceptical with regards our media, the photographs that we see or don’t see.
    I think Eileen’s reference to objectivity is an important one too as the viewer is likely to judge the reputation and credibility of the photographer and their previous work when valuing and assigning ‘believability’ of an image. This is important for ‘young’ photographers as the way our ‘future’ work is viewed will be based on our work of the past, particularly for photojournalists I guess. For example the future work of Jeff Wall and Sam Taylor Wood will be viewed in one way, whereas Bruce Gilden or Elliot Erwitt in quite another. And indeed how will the shocking World Press Photo image of Jodi Bieber’s alter our view of her work in future? I’ll stop as I’m losing my drift…
    Clive, when I’ve got a quiet moment I’ll have a read of that paper too, thanks.

  • Yes photography manipulates, if this is what you chose to call it. When you take a photograph you select, compose, and photograph based on your own experience and feelings about the scene. A good photograph communicates this to the viewer. That’s what it’s all about, it’s what we are striving for. It’s only “manipulation” in a perjorative sense if you go to the extreme of trying to communicate more than there is there in reality. And people do this, not just for commercial reasons, but to make a point they hold dear. So we have to be on our guard to a certain extent – “caveat viewer” I guess.

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