Indexicality vs. Interpretation

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I don’t know how or where you would draw the line between art photography and non-art photography. But it might have something to do with the idea that art photography is open to interpretation, is fluid, and non-art photography is not. This might be a somewhat strange discussion still to have (we’re over a week into 2016), but the world of photography is sluggishly conservative, and many of the ideas and debates that have washed over the medium in the wake of postmodernism actually do need to get reevaulated.

There is no field of photography where this struggle plays out more clearly and openly than news or press photography, or however we want to call it. The past few iterations of the World Press Photo (WPP) contest were haunted (or maybe marred) by discussions over image manipulation: how much manipulation is allowed? Or: at what stage does a photograph cease to become non-WPP-worthy?

If WPP were a haiku competition, things would be a lot easier. You’d start out by looking at the form (counting the syllables etc.), and any submission that violates the rules is dismissed. In photography, things aren’t quite so simple. David Campbell wrote a report about the issue entitled The Integrity of the Image, which looks into how to approach things. Chapter 6, Accepted Standards and Current Practices, outlines what it announces it does, with entries ranging from what could have been expected (“The alteration of images—where alteration means the digital addition or subtraction of elements—is forbidden.”) to what sounds good, but what’s impossible to enforce (“Adjustments made by image-processing software […] are acceptable so long as they are deemed ‘minor/normal/subtle/moderate’, while ‘excessive use’ is not acceptable” — given you can’t count syllables, what exactly are “excessive” adjustments?).

But there is manipulation, and there’s manipulation. There is the trickery you do on your computer, and there is what you to get your picture. For example, last year Giovanni Troilo won first prize in Contemporary Issues for his series The Dark Heart of Europe. First, the mayor of the town he had portrayed complained. And then the claims about possible problems with the work kept rolling in, complaints about staging (or posing — interestingly enough, these different terms are often used in the same way) or misrepresentation. The latter then had WPP withdraw its prize (link; if you want something a bit more breathless click here).

At the heart of these troubles lie two different aspects of photography, indexicality and interpretation. In a nutshell, indexicality means that what’s in the picture was actually in front of your camera. That already creates a whole slew of problems, given that’s where the various problems with manipulation play out. Interpretation, however, is a very different beast. In this particular context, the approach chosen by WPP appears to be that if we all look at the same picture, we all come to the same conclusion. So as long as the picture isn’t manipulated, we’re good. The only problem with that approach is that it doesn’t work at all.

For a start, we could come to the same conclusion by looking at very different photographs. Various issues are addressed in often vastly different ways by different photographers. This includes many of the issues that appear in contests such as WPP. In the world of art photography, the ideas about how to get the photographs that talk about an issue are much wider than elsewhere. For example, you could easily and happily stage something, and few people would worry about that. After all, your staging would just be a tool to get the picture that says what you want it to say.

Of course, we could now have a long debate about who does it better, or who approaches the idea of photography in a more appropriate way, and what any of that might tell us about photography. I don’t mean to say that such debates lack merit. But, and this is my main problem here, such a debate will have to take into consideration the world of photography as it exists today (and not, say, in the 1950s).

It seems fair to say that our collective visual literacy has come to accept and easily deal with approaches to photography that simply didn’t exist in the past. Most of us use some app on our smartphones that adds some filter on top, to arrive at essentially heavily manipulated photographs. And most of us have no problem with that. Of course, such approaches have long infiltrated the world of news photography. For example, in 2010 Damon Winter produced Hipstamatic photographs for the New York Times. He later defended his approach in a piece entitled Through My Eyes, not Hipstamatic’s.

At the same time, most of the various manipulation examples where elements of a picture were added or removed were done so amateurishly that they were detected rapidly. If you look at the examples in this article you’ll probably be amused how simple and obvious they are. A little verification will do the trick.

What I’d argue is not necessarily for contests such as WPP to relax all their ground rules. But in a world where many of those rules are being violated by all of us on a daily basis and where we are surrounded by such violations everywhere (including in the news), being dogmatic about them makes absolutely no sense any longer.

This is particularly important because the real fight over photographs is now happening in the domain of interpretation. You could show pictures of melting glaciers to climate-change deniers, and guess what? They’ll still deny climate change. You could show people pictures of desperate refugees, and guess what? They’ll still ask for border fences or come to even more inane conclusions (in both the US and Europe, the far right are making huge gains right now). On top of that, the idea that our media somehow are not to trust — mostly because they do not show us the things we want to believe — is gaining more and more traction. Your fights over how much you can manipulate a photograph are really not going to have any effect on that.

Given how important news images still are, we thus need to have a different debate about them. Instead of talking about manipulation of photographs, we need to talk about their interpretation, in particular the manipulation of interpretation. We need to talk about what pictures do, given their context — not what they’re allowed to look like.

Ideally, organizations like World Press Photo would expand what they do, to face these kinds of issues. Whether it still makes sense to identify those handful of photographs out of thousands and thousands that somehow are the best I don’t know (I think not, but people love their prizes). But the reality also is that the exhibitions created by WPP are being seen by a lot of people. By their own accounts, the yearly WPP prize exhibition tour happens in “nearly 100 locations every year that attract around 3 million visitors.” What better opportunity would there be to finally have an expanded discussion around photographs and how we extract meaning from their content (which might or might not conform to our ideas of proper indexicality) through interpretation?