On Edgar Martins, Or, Thus Puked Zarathustra

You know I really tried to stay out of this debate surrounding Edgar Martins apparent digital manipulations but yesterday I had a brief conversation with a colleague on the importance of ethics in relation to a journalism class I am going to be teaching. Then I got sent a link to the NY Times lens blog which has in turn a link to Martins' reply to the whole debacle.

I read this and the bile rose. The guy is incapable of admitting his deception (and let's be clear - it was a deception) and apologizing.

I'll try and ignore the insane amount of pretentious waffle as it's really not worth the effort to examine. Suffice it to say that it reads like a bad piece of undergraduate art theory (ie very bad indeed) and is probably only there to confuse people into thinking that he is actually really intelligent. The phrase 'Your Jedi mind tricks will not work on me boy' springs to mind.

Anyway, let's start with this little quote:

It is my view that there was a clear misunderstanding concerning the values and rights associated to the creative process, which made a renown publication such as The New York Times Magazine commission an artist such as myself to depict a very specific view of reality without taking the necessary measures to ensure that I was aware of its journalistic limits. On the other hand I did not see these as a valid boundary. It is quite plausible that two parties might start on an assumption that there are no-misunderstandings.
I did not present the work as something it wasn't nor did I obscure or conceal the relevant constructions and originals.

Ok. There are so many holes here I don't know where to begin. Perhaps I should point out that the NY Times contract is very specific in that '...all Work submitted to The Times and that the Work will be original and unaltered.'

That is a direct quote. Now there is an unwritten agreement that some colour correction, toning and dodging/burning is allowed but any competent photographer knows the limits here. Cloning, mirroring, digitally adding or removing elements is not allowed. Pretty much everyone knows that - even non professionals, so the little misunderstanding Martins refers to is surely on his part only. In fact his statement that he did not see these journalistic limits as a valid boundary (his words) tells me that he is well aware of these guidelines and deliberately chose to ignore them.

That would suggest a deliberate breach of contract to me. If I were on the Times editorial staff I would be spitting fire at what is basically an accusation that they weren't clear with him on their ethical guidelines.

Skipping over some more bullshit on meta photography and the representations of the real, we come to the line that

Photojournalism has never felt the need to challenge or contravene certain rules, aesthetic or ethical.

I'm sorry but this blatantly isn't the case. Photojournalism has struggled with aesthetic and ethical dilemmas since the beginning. There are books and articles galore on the subject. Put down the art theory book for a minute and go to another section of the library.

Then we have

In a society where visual communication prevails, the transparency of the camera promotes unattainable expectations. As Peggy J. Bowers rightly observes, this does a disservice to the public. ‘And it contributes to a voyeuristic culture who use and view images carelessly and gratuitously.’ 5
It is my view that this attitude towards Photography also does a disservice to Journalism.

What 'the transparency of the camera' is supposed to mean I have no idea - it is one of those phrases that sounds fine but actually means nothing. However the quote he references about carelessly and gratuitously using images is one he should perhaps pay more attention to himself. His own sentence following that is one I would fire straight back at him.

And moving swiftly on through a whole load of nonsense about symmetry and fire we come to

Discussions about process are all but irrelevant in today’s world.

Um.... No they are not.

And then;

I see Photography as a complex medium that concerns wide latitude of processes and mechanisms.
I, for one, am happy that my images will once again be viewed with a degree of ‘skepticism’. Perhaps now the focus may shift from ‘how’ to ‘why’ (...eventually anyway…).

I too see photography as a complex medium, however Mr Martins, we are asking you the questions how and why already. I am not only skeptical about your images but about your whole damn attitude.

Near the end of this little regurgitation of half baked philosophy and vague responses we come to this:

I recognize that when the contract between author/newspaper/reader is broken it negates the newspaper’s raison d’être and alienates its public.
Regardless of whether our starting points may have differed, regardless of whether I may or may not have embarked on this project with intentions to produce a completely factual approach, regardless of what my decision making process may have been throughout the production and post-production phases of this work, regardless of whether I may have been the right person for the job, the question which I believe to be most relevant to ask is this: in the same way as journalists derive their authority from a binding relationship to truth, would it have been possible for an artist, such as myself, to render his views obsolete and tackle this project in any other way than its present form?
I suspect that, if I had done this, I would surely have misrepresented my work, moreover the viewer.
I fully understand the need to protect journalism and its ethics.

Well, quite frankly I don't believe Mr Edgar Martins does fully understand the need to protect journalism and it's ethics, and if he did realise that when the 'contract between author/newspaper/reader is broken it negates the newspaper’s raison d’être and alienates its public' then perhaps he would have not given a damn about his own personal work and it's misrepresentation (whatever that is) and done the job he was hired for, which he clearly understands but chose to ignore.

Let me outline the main problem here. I understand that photography's claim to truth is a tenuous one and the subject of much debate, but there is a certain limit within which we can trust photography to represent the world we share albeit one that changes constantly with each single photograph - what I choose to omit from the frame, when I choose to press the shutter, where I choose to position myself etc all are a manipulation that lead to a constructed view of reality.

However, as a journalist it is my duty and responsibility to represent reality in a way that provides a certain truth in that the viewer has to trust that it is an accurate representation of a situation and an event. This relationship between photographer and viewer in regards to that exact level of trust is fraught enough with potential misunderstanding and misrepresentation without me going in and manipulating the image with such blatant fraud as cloning, removing and adding elements and mirroring. Isn't it enough that fashion and advertising and the celebrity and lifestyle magazines erode our understanding of photographic representation with their constant alterations and manipulations of the 'real'. Isn't it enough that they are doing untold damage to this relationship of trust between the journalistic photographer and the viewer? Do we really need an artist such as Edgar Martins to come along and do a documentary assignment, manipulate the images to the point where they are essentially lies and then tell us it is his intention to open up a debate about the very nature of photographic representation of reality? The debate has been raging for a hundred and fifty years and this adds nothing constructive to it

Seriously. I am insulted that he thinks this aspect of his work is more important than his contractual obligations and moreover his obligations to his viewer. Frankly it is this kind of self centered selfishness that all too many artists are guilty of and raises my heckles beyond belief.

My job as a photojournalist relies on trust. Trust with the viewer, trust with the subject and trust with my editor. I don't care if the subject is a dying human being, a celebrity with a huge PR machine or a building or a landscape. Trust is paramount. Without it, I cannot properly work. What I come away with will be at best woefully incomplete and at worst an outright lie.

So, in closing, I'd like to thank you Edgar Martins for further eroding that trust and making my job harder than it already is. Perhaps now you can go back to the gallery circuit and quote Nietzsche to a naive and doe eyed young art student at an opening over a glass of cheap wine. Some of us have real work to do.


nico said...

very well argued. very interesting post.

Stan B. said...

Give credit where credit's due- at least the man is consistent. You can't trust his word, or his images.