Staging, Manipulation &Truth

An excellent post on the New York Times Lens blog on a subject I’ve often written about, Staging, Manipulation and Truth in Photography, with comments from some well-known photographers, including Stanley Greene. The post is their response to the survey of photographers who entered for this year’s WPP contest that I wrote about a while back in my post The State of News Photography.

Greene puts some of the blame on digital, reminding us that he put contact sheets into his book ‘The Open Wound’ on Chechnya so that people could see how he was working and thinking and ending with the comment:

There’s a lot of good guys out there, but there’s also a lot of bad guys who are giving us a bad rap. And a lot of bad guys who are getting awards. It’s up to the editors and photo festivals to hold photographers’ feet to the fire.

The problem isn’t so much in staging pictures, but in passing staged pictures off as news. It’s no surprise that Gene Smith gets a mention for his practices, and certainly some of his greatest images would not pass the test for news, but his great photo essays were perhaps never presented as news. We were always aware that ‘Nurse Midwife‘ or ‘Country Doctor‘ were collaborations between the photographer and the subject and a certain amount of staging was probably inevitable.

Bill Brandt too comes to mind, producing some great images, many if not virtually all of them staged. A story I’ve often repeated is of someone commenting to him about an image of an old sea-captain he had been sent from London to Liverpool to photograph, and saying how fortunate that the man had a particular lamp next to him, to which Brandt replied it was not a matter of luck, he had taken it with him to make the photograph. Again there was no pretence that this was news.

Some of the other comments in the Lens post reminded me of my own experiences, and I’ve sometimes been shocked at how some photographers stage news images.  I often think their pictures ought to be accompanied by that short phrase that often was found below images in some magazines, ‘posed by model.’

If you have posed or set up your pictures, then your caption should indicate this. Under some of mine you will sometimes see captions like ‘Jane Smith poses with her ukelele‘ (not that I’ve ever to my knowledge photographed anyone called Jane Smith playing a uke) or ‘the handing over of the keys to the property was re-staged for the press’ to make clear that my photograph was not of the actual event. And if you photograph a ‘photo opportunity‘ you should also – as Santiago Lyon of AP says, make that clear. It isn’t hard to do, though it is perhaps harder to get editors to actually read and take notice of captions.

Michele McNally of The New York Times who headed the jury for the 2015 World Press Photo contest puts it clearly: ‘A staged photo is not acceptable in news pictures that are thought to depict real-world situations and events.’ Photographers need to make sure that they do not mislead in this way.

Greene says in the quote above ‘It’s up to the editors and photo festivals to hold photographers’ feet to the fire.’ Perhaps it’s also up to photographers to name and shame colleagues too where they know that award-winning news images having been staged.

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