I am in the process of doing some housekeeping on my overburdened computers and just stumbled across this set of notes which I remember writing near the beginning of this year (when I was doing a lot of editing). Anyway, I thought it might be worth sharing and seeing if anyone has any thoughts on the matter.
There is a school of thought that says that you edit constantly as a photographer; in what you choose to photograph. How you frame it. When you choose to release the shutter. Then later when you pick or reject images. Later still in how you present them. This is true. There is then a extension of that which claims that in editing in such a matter - especially as you shoot - you, as a photographer are somehow manipulating the way the information is presented to a viewer. The frequently touted argument often includes the example of framing your photograph so that such-and-such a person or object does not appear in the photograph, even when they are present at the scene. How is this different - the argument goes - than removing things in Photoshop? On one level it is not. And this is where the argument takes on a different mantle. In my mind, a good photographer will photograph something in a way that includes the most useful information about that thing as is possible. This can either be emotional content or factual content though ideally it is both. A photograph is always a representation of something. Not the thing itself, so how can you use it to accurately convey the reality you are experiencing? C'eci n'est pas une pipe as Magritte would say.
If this is so then how can we avoid the problem of - shall we say - the lie of omission. We cannot. What is happening behind the photographer's camera may well be crucial to the understanding of what is happening in front of it. If this is the case then a photograph will always be an incomplete truth and only ever part of a whole. Is this a problem and if so can this problem be avoided? This is where the photographer as a person becomes very important. The camera is a powerful tool. If your intention is communication of certain facts then how this tool is used is a responsibility not be taken lightly. Only then will the camera be used as a tool of representation and not mis-representation. What methods can be used? One photographer will shoot a thousand frames in different directions and work out what is happening later. Another photographer will know what is happening and shoot accordingly. Of course there are no hard and fast rules and there is always room to maneuver. Yet one should always be aware. If it looks interesting, it probably is. Even if you don't know how and why yet. A child may take seemingly innocent photographs which then become laden with meaning under the scrutiny of an adult mind. Trusting in your instincts is important, but your experience should be used to asses those instincts and act on them accordingly.
The true problems arise when a photograph is misused. When a photographer consciously chooses to shoot or frame something in such a way that serves a particular agenda, especially one which is antithetical to the unbiased actuality of what is happening around them. Difficult to examine. Even harder to prove. Other forms of misuse are easier to spot. Cropping a frame, Photoshop manipulation and misleading context are all basic ways in which a photograph can be used to serve as propaganda rather than information.
I am not talking here about such uses of photography as in advertising, portraiture (especially celebrity portraiture which is basically an advert for a person/brand anyway) art and illustration. These arenas are inherently agenda led and have manipulation of the viewer as an essential element. I am talking about documentary work. The idea that a camera can record an objective truth. This is a dangerous claim which is impossible to qualify. The agenda is always present but what I am trying to point out is that when the photographer manipulates the photograph though the decisions made while shooting a situation, the elusive objectivity can be brought closer if the photographer is aware of the various angles of subjectivity and photographs accordingly. There may be facts represented in the image so glaring obvious it is impossible to ignore them (the sky is blue, this person has no legs, that person is holding a banana, this person is crying etc) but there is then the next level of interpretation (This person is crying because...) and this is where the higher brain functions kick in (rational thought, critical assessment and the mother of them all - empathy). A photographer – and their editors - should then make an informed choice. Is it enough to show that this person is crying. Do I need to include the reason in the photograph. Will a written caption explain the whys and wherefores. Is a separate or additional photograph needed? Do I even understand what is happening enough to make these decisions? What should I do now? These questions need to be asked. If they are then, hopefully, the photograph will provide the answers.