Has the digital revolution changed documentary photography?

‘Has the digital revolution changed documentary photography? ‘, State Library of New South Wales Magazine , May, 2013

Documentary photography is very popular at the moment. Despite the much vaunted torrent of digital images from the 24/7 news feeds, the myriad Youtube channels, or the thousands of photographs uploaded every minute to social media sites such as Flickr, Instagram or Facebook, people still have an appetite for the honed, considered, still image taken by a photographer who has devoted his or her life to the profession. New high-quality books, exhibitions, festivals, blogs, and the iPad editions of newspapers such as the Guardian, are all continuing to use the single ‘decisive moment’ of the documentary photograph, and continuing to attract viewers with it. Yet there are clear signs that the advent of digital photography has put the assumptions of the documentary genre under an enormous amount of pressure.

Digital photography has long since ceased to be new. The apocalyptic scenarios sketched out on its behalf in the late 1980s and early 1990s have proved to be simplistic, self-serving and wrong. Photography hasn’t imploded because, instead of light falling on emulsion to activate chemical reactions, light now falls on charged coupler devices to activate algorithmic reactions. People haven’t lost ‘faith’ in the photograph because photography was always more than just a particular technology, it was an historical convention, a social practice, an entrenched media industry, a personal relationship, and a psychological space. Shifting from film to memory cards and darkrooms to Photoshop wasn’t going to change that.

And, even though the statistics for the number of photo uploads are mind-boggling (for instance Flickr upload rates peaked at almost 2 million a day in mid 2011) we shouldn’t be carried away by the current on-line revolution in photography, either. Photography has always been a numbers game, and its numbers have always been relatively astronomical. For instance, way back in 1861, a little over twenty years after the invention of the medium, the enthusiastic booster of nineteenth century photography, Oliver Wendell Holmes, claimed that he had personally viewed 100,000 stereographs and had 1000 in his collection. By the twentieth century those staggering numbers were beginning to appear puny. In that century, it could be argued, the most important artefact for photography became the filing cabinet, not the camera, as massive archives around the world began to fill with photographs. For instance the filing cabinets in in the Film Preservation Facility of the stock photography agency Corbis, alone, hold eleven million pre-digital photographs. Seen in this light the current numbers of images available on-line are merely part of a trend, an exponential trend certainly, but a trend inherent to the medium nonetheless.

Some commentators talk about on-line photo sharing as though it is a new thing, as though people had never shared photographs before. But photography has always been a medium of interpersonal exchange, too. The very raison d’etre of the most popular portrait form of the nineteenth century, the carte-de-visite, was so that multiple copies could be shared within social circles The carte-de-visite albums of the period were the Facebook pages of their time. And even the millions of postcards, snapshots and albums of the twentieth century were always also specific messages between individuals, as well as a photographer’s image of the world. You only have to turn over any old postcard or discarded snapshot you might happen to pick up in a junkshop to find on the back a hand written message from one person to another, as short and enigmatic as a tweet.

The so-called ‘digital revolution’, therefore, has not fundamentally destroyed, but has only intensified the trends and qualities already fundamentally inherent in the medium. But, documentary photographers have felt these intensifications particularly acutely.

Documentary photographers want to change the world, that is one of the defining precepts of the genre. The folk heroes of documentary are those who have gone in under the radar or embedded themselves behind the lines and brought back images that have changed people’s perceptions of a war or other humanitarian crisis. The icons of the twentieth century, the classic photographs from the Second World War or the Vietnam War that have burned themselves into our collective historical consciousness, were all taken by committed documentary photographers working for governments or news organisations. But the icons of the past ten years, of the Iraq War or the Arab Spring, which have been similarly burned into our collective visual consciousness, were all taken by participants, not documentary photographers. The terrible photographs that ushered in the century, the torture photographs of 2003 and 2004 from Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, were taken by the abusers themselves — the American Military Police. As Susan Sontag was the first to recognize: ‘A digital camera is a common possession among soldiers. Where once photographing war was the province of photojournalists, now soldiers themselves are all photographers — recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find picturesque, their atrocities — and swapping images among themselves and emailing them around the globe.’ (Susan Sontag ‘Regarding the Torture of Others’, New York Times Magazine, 23 May, 2004 p27.) These images changed the world, certainly, but the people who took them had no agenda and no photographic ethic, other than boredom and a need to use the camera to feel part of a social group, albeit a perverse one.

In the nine short years since the global shock of the Abu Ghraib photographs, the commonest possession amongst all of us has become a mobile phone with a camera linked to the internet. Now we are all potential photographers almost all the time, and so the stream of revelations continues. The screams of alleged police brutality on our streets, the blood running down the faces of the victims of random terrorist attacks overseas, the surging of crowds at democracy demonstrations, and the drunken scuffles of the dissolute middle classes at night, all the phantasmagorical images of our social and political nightmares have first been uploaded to the internet from the mobile phones of participants, and then harvested from social media websites by mainstream new organisations. (The police themselves are now increasingly using the mobile phone cameras of the general public as a ubiquitous surveillance system, they often use the mobile phone and Facebook postings of participants to identify rioters.)

Yet even in these new circumstances, where the previously separate roles of photographer and subject, participant and observer, witness and victim are collapsing, there is still a role for the documentary photographer. Younger documentary photographers, such as the New Yorker Ben Lowy, are recognising the need to work in both modes, to provide a continual ‘feed’ of images as well as delivering considered, edited essays, in order to survive and remain relevant in this new economy of images.

On their way to being published and consumed by viewers, all digital documentary photographs pass through an environment were computer manipulation, to some degree, is inevitable. In this sense documentary photographs are a lot like contemporary movies, they both have some element of CG in them, even if the audience isn’t aware of it. For a long time we have realized that ‘external’ factors such as captioning, context, point of view, cropping, focal length and so on, dramatically altered the presumed meaning of news photographs, and we have learnt to ‘read’ photographs accordingly. However because they use a workflow that includes digital post-production, newspapers and mainstream media outlets have quickly moved to establish strict protocols that protect the ‘internal’ visual integrity, the documentary ‘truth’ and therefore the news value of their images, from CG infection. For instance in 2006, during the Israel-Lebanon conflict, sharp-eyed bloggers caught out the Reuters news agency who had published images by one of their stringers, Adnan Hajj. He had taken a shot of smoke rising above Beirut after an Israeli bombardment, but he had not been able to resist using the Photoshop ‘clone’ tool to, rather inexpertly, increase the amount of black smoke that appeared to be billowing from the buildings, before selling it on to Reuters. Once the alteration had been identified Reuters quickly dropped Hajj as a stringer, removed all of his 920 images from sale, and sacked one of their picture editors.

However other photographers are experimenting with embracing to possibilities of CG to not so much manipulate a truth, as to tell a story with multiple truths within one frame. For instance the Israeli gallery-based photographer Barry Frydlender still documents real scenes in Israel, but he composites multiple times, and multiple points of view, into the one complete image. These images have to be read differently by viewers, they are not a decisive moment, but rather decisive moments through which the viewer has to carefully navigate, assembling the complex meaning of the scene themselves.

These examples indicate the stresses traditional documentary photography is under, while at the same time it remains vibrant and obviously needed. One thing is certain: as photography continues it exponential change under the impact of the technological revolutions to come, the documentary impulse will continue to be at its very core.

Martyn Jolly

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