Night and Day

Thanks to the Online Photographer for a 9/11 post  last week that links to some interesting issues raised in a post on another blog, BagNewsNotes, James Nachtwey’s 9/11: Eleven Years Later, Like Night and Day, which in turn links to a post from 9/11/2011 by Max Hodges on Google+, in which he writes about the differences between the versions of images from Ground Zero as they were originally released in 2001 and in the re-worked versions from ten years later.

It’s an interesting piece and worth going and looking at the pairs of pictures to see the changes that have been made, which as Hodges makes clear in some cases go well beyond what many would see as acceptable for documentary images.

What kind of post-processing is allowable on news and documentary images is a topic I’ve discussed in the past, and I don’t think the detailed prescriptions of AP and Reuters mentioned by Hodges are particularly helpful  – what really matters are the intentions behind processing, which should be to report clearly and accurately on the events as you saw them.

There are some changes in the images that I think reflect the speed at which the original images were sent out, poorly colour corrected and with incorrect contrast levels etc. Agencies now want pictures almost before the events even take place, and many pictures now reflect a lack of necessary thought and editing which would make them more effective. But mostly the effect of the processing in these images seems to be a misguided over-dramatisation, which to me cheapens the work.

There isn’t really some original uninflected state of a digital image that somehow is more authentic than any other. The camera and processing software puts its own interpretation onto what we saw – often in a rather arbitrary way – and we have to work – just as we did in the darkroom – to get the picture to show our particular view.

While I don’t in principle object to Nachtwey processing his images, the way that he has done so I think reduces their credibility, and more importantly, throws doubt upon his integrity as a photographer. And integrity, as I’ve argued before is in the end what we all have to rely on.

9/11 was an iconic event, one of those times that most of us can remember where we were and what we were doing when we learnt of it (I was outside the college boiler room just getting on my bike to go home for a late lunch when a distraught colleague who had grown up in New York rushed up to tell me.) Although that particular memory isn’t one which needs to be known or remembered, I think that we do need to keep the memory of the actual event clear and accurate – and not play around with the pictures.

It’s perhaps also important to remember that this was not the only event in American history that took place on September 11.  It shouldn’t completely overshadow the events of 1973.

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