It may be that some of the great philosophical work of our time is taking place, hidden and unheralded, in the field of image forensics. Where but under the scrutiny of digital experts who draw a line separating false representations of the world from truthful ones are contemporary questions of perception and reality brought so keenly to bear? Who but these detectives of the real pursue as explicitly — as intricately — our crime wave of the fake, the contrived, the uncanny, the exponential image? With exquisite, singular focus, photo forensics engages the conundrum that photographic technology has tilted toward, steadily but ever more frankly, since its inception over 150 years ago: Does reality have a tipping point?
Dangling from the cliff edge of that question is the World Press Photo competition. In recent years the annual competition, which recognizes images submitted by photojournalists working across the globe, has dissolved into chaos, recrimination and a round of post-mortem soul-searching. Earlier this year, the WPP was forced to disqualify 22 percent of the competition’s finalists after forensics experts determined that certain images had been altered or manipulated beyond the currently accepted industry standard. This almost triples the number of disqualifications from a year earlier, suggesting a certain forward momentum, a trend larger and more fearsome than any set of standards.
Swedish photographer Paul Hansen won the 2013 World Press Photo competition with an image of a Gaza City funeral procession, led through an alley by men bearing the shrouded bodies of two children killed in an Israeli airstrike. Separate from the horror it depicts, with its fish-eye depth of field, stark figuration and stony matte light, the photo meets the eye as unreal. Complaints in this vein led to an investigation of the image, specifically its manipulation of tone — a quality central to photography’s evolving grammar of realism. Somehow both a beautifying tool and, in the right hands, possessed of the very texture of reality (as every Instagram filter maven knows), tone is transformative. For that reason, “excessive toning” is against WPP rules; Hansen said he adjusted tone only to balance uneven light, “in effect to recreate what the eye sees.” Ultimately, Hansen retained his prize: the judges stood behind what they saw, though it would appear their eyes prefer altered images a good portion of the time.
Hansen’s image has earned a place in an exhibit, currently on display at the Bronx Documentary Center, comprising a selected history of notoriously faked or otherwise tinkered-with images. “Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography” is a survey of much more than its title suggests, and manifests the philosophical quandaries the title implies. What image alters nothing? Poses and manipulates nothing? What is “documentary photography” in an age of camera ubiquity, a world of images so replete that no reality seems to exist beyond it? What was it ever?
The practice of photojournalism presses up against these questions in a particular way. “Altered Images,” co-curated by Michael Kamber and Bianca Farrow, evinces a growing anxiety around images that circulate within a sphere of public and professional trust. Of course the impulse to stage and sweeten journalistic photographs is as old as photography itself: Roger Fenton’s 1855 image of cannonballs artfully strewn across a road during the Crimean War, and Alexander Gardner’s posing of a Confederate soldier’s corpse for two 1863 battlefield shots, are both part of the exhibit. But most of “Altered Images” comprises political and war imagery from the last decade or so, and the nature of the manipulations it presents is more diffuse. The lifespan of an image has grown more infinite, in every conceivable way; in politics and elsewhere the longevity of a fact, once considered the great ally of the photograph, only contracts.
Some of the show’s most notable images are not exemplars of vintage doctoring and Photoshop fails but indictments of haste, complicity and context. For instance, Marco Di Laurio’s 2003 image of a child jumping over a row of dead Iraqis appeared in a 2012 BBC story, where it illustrated a recent massacre in Syria. FOX13 Memphis posted a 2014 image of Valencia, Venezuela in flames to illustrate this spring’s riots in Baltimore.
Susan Sontag wrote that a fake photograph falsifies reality; a “true” image placed in a “false” context makes homogenous the reality (extreme, in each case above) it sought to make distinct. Something central to photojournalism’s project — to document and transmit specificity, sometimes to stir a counter-specific empathy for another’s plight — is threatened by the wave of barely distinguishable images that wash over us each day. Bobbing in this rough tide, one depiction of suffering (especially far-off suffering) is as good as another. Until, that is, it involves the U.S. military: the exhibit notes that an unaltered photo of an American soldier killed in the horrific 2004 battle of Falluja, widely published in Europe, was held back by American publications.
The dialectics of truth and fakery in documentary photography are bound by the photojournalist’s urge to narrate — an impulse increasingly absent from the ways in which we document ourselves, and each other. The images that have ratified a new cadence within our spiraling culture of looking and being looked at involve cell phone and surveillance footage of egregious crimes and shocking criminals. Even more than drama, the images of one white police officer choking Eric Garner to death on a Staten Island sidewalk, and another throwing a 14-year-old black Texan girl to the ground, to cite two recent examples, telegraph pure and necessary information. Story drains away from these scenes, and information leaps to the fore. The same might be said of the first published images, captured by security cameras, of the Tsarnaev brothers, and more recently Dylann Roof. In these images, and in the video conference stills of Roof’s bond hearing—perfectly, almost eerily composed, yet roughly textured, blue-toned, “real”—we might begin to make out realism’s last frontier.
On the brink of that frontier, it seems inevitable that we would abandon the image-as-storyteller, as truth-teller—embrace alteration, open up that Periscope feed, see this thing through with grim resignation, with naked or at least knowing enthusiasm. One thing won’t change: we have always sought more from images than they are designed to provide. “It is said that the camera cannot lie,” James Baldwin wrote, “but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see. The language of the camera is the language of our dreams.” Thus we are surrounded, immersed in a story of images, an ocean of images with no story. The truth of this predicament—the truth of much photographed predicament—feels trapped not beyond the camera’s reach, but too well inside it.
Michelle Orange is the author of “This Is Running for Your Life,” a collection of her essays.
Photo Illustration: Getty
Photo: World Press Photo