Cameras Don't Make Photographs

David duChemin

The not-too-distant outrage over Steve McCurry’s penchant for tweaking his photographs with Photoshop is just one in a long series of opportunities for photographers to get their panties in a twist over how photography should or should not be done. I’ve about as much desire to enter the fray as I have to pour my morning coffee into my lap. But I think we can do better, so here goes.

Its not about manipulating photographs. It never has been. It’s about manipulating others. No, I take it back. It’s not even about that. It’s about waking up and realizing we’ve been manipulated all along. And we feel betrayed.

Kids respond in all kinds of ways when they are told Santa isn’t real, and as an art form, photography is in that awkward phase of growing up when suddenly we seem to be realizing what we should have known all along: Santa is just Dad in a bad costume. And this casts serious doubt on the integrity of the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny, too.

Cameras don’t make photographs. They never did. But we were told they did. Worse, we were told (or willingly bought into the idea) that the camera never lied. And now we are finally coming to accept that it’s not the job of the camera to tell the truth; it’s ours. And it’s been that way since the beginning.

We put on one lens instead of another to include one thing and exclude others. We choose one moment over another. We choose what we focus on, and what we blur. The ways in which we can tell a story are endless, and each time the camera does what we ask of it. There is no internal moral compass that forces anyone to shoot a story from both sides, to include all the context we’ll ever need to interpret the story. There is no filter in Photoshop that prevents us from adding what was not there or removing what we wish had been absent. It does our bidding.

It has always been the role of the photographer to tell the truth. Yes, the truth as we see it, because that’s the best view of the truth on offer as human beings. Humans aren’t capable of seeing completely objective truth, so I’m not sure why we expect the camera to do that for us.

There is no one thing called photography, no one overarching reason we all do this, and no single way in which we do it. Like writers, some are journalists, some academics, some poets, and some humourists. We would never dream to accuse writers of changing words around to better tell the story they want. It’s a given. We don’t trust their pens or their keyboards to tell us the truth as best they can. We either do or do not trust them. Humans tell stories, true or otherwise. Cameras do not. So that’s one thought. We feel let down when we find someone “used Photoshop.”

There is no process so pure that we will ever be free from manipulation. We enjoyed the illusion for a while. But now it’s time to grow up.

We all make photographs for different reasons. Specialty fields like journalism and forensics aside, there are no rules. There is no governing body. You are free to use or not use any technique you like. But you are not free to dictate how I or anyone else does what they do. Opine all you like. You won’t like my multiple exposures and I won’t like your Orton effect. Fine. Make all the rules you want, and apply them to yourself with as much severity as you choose, but accord to others the freedom to choose differently. Art made in submission to the rules of others is not art. It’s bondage.

We do not resonate with art because it is obedient. We resonate with art because it rings true and honest. And like the writer, I think it’s possible, even necessary, to remove elements of a story in order to make it better. It’s possible to add elements, use more colourful words, move things around to make the plot twist less noticeable. If I read your story and it doesn’t ring true, I’ll go back to reading Harry Potter. No one gets angry with J.K.Rowling when they find out there is no actual Hogwarts. Unless, perhaps, they’re seven years old.

It’s time we grew up and stopped buying the myth of a medium and a process that have intrinsic integrity. They are fundamentally flawed and limited (wondrous and full of possibility, too); they are only tools in the hands of storytellers and artists. Some storytellers will tell us those stories honestly and some will not. It’s time we started taking responsibility for the stories we tell and the way we tell them. And it's time we took responsibility for choosing the stories and the storytellers we listen to.

I’ve seen the changes McCurry made to his photographs. They don’t bother me. We’re all arguing so vigorously over small tweaks that don’t change the message of the story that we’re forgetting to have a discussion about the story itself.

Because it’s way easier to argue about how a story is told than it is to be the one telling the story or to have something meaningful to say about the actual message.

This is not an article about McCurry or journalism. Please don’t fill the comments with your thoughts on journalistic ethics.* This is not about that. It’s about the way we bicker and opine over small things while missing the larger picture. It’s about the way we prescribe how others should do their art or tell their stories. It’s about our fondness for saying what “real” photography is or is not. It’s starting to sound a lot like kids arguing about what colour red Santa’s suit should be or what his reindeer are called.

Make your photographs any damn way you please. Shock us. Surprise us. Use film or shoot digitally. Embrace or eschew Photoshop, or whatever creative opportunities or constraints you wish to use in order to create your work.

You can clone things out and still create honest work in most contexts. And you can leave the clone tool alone and still tell vicious lies.

Photographs are made with various tools, but they are made by you. Whether they are honest or not is only secondary to a bigger question: are you?

By its very nature, photography is a manipulation. It always has been. When we accept this, we can move on to more interesting discussions and bigger stories; we can begin to think more critically about the stories we accept. When we stop asking “if it really looked like that,” our craft will finally be able to move unhindered into art and we’ll be able to more freely perform our roles as artists and storytellers, constrained not by the rules and expectations of others but, for better or worse, by our humanity.

*Let me repeat again because someone’s going to miss it: this is not about ethics in journalism. If (notice my choice of words here) Steve McCurry was bound to a set of ethics, and if he violated them, that is a different conversation. This is about accepting the fundamental nature of photography as a subjective medium, and about our opportunity to accept that subjectivity. If anything it is an argument to become more responsible with the stories we tell. But I believe that must include a discussion of the actual story, not just the way in which it is told.

David duChemin is the founder and Chief Executive Nomad of Craft & Vision. A world and humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, speaker, and adventurer, David can be found at DavidduChemin.com. 

Craft & Technique David duChemin

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Comments


  • Back in The good old days, I would spend long hours in the dark room Manipulating and pushing developing and dodging on the enlarger to get what I was trying to achieve with prints. So it is the end results that count. I do the same with Photoshop some times.

    Ted Azriel on
  • David, thank you. My sentiments exactly.

    David Coats on
  • So…

    What you’ve posted about Santa…

    I think I’m going to be sick.

    Bob K on
  • Very well said, David. As someone who learned in the darkroom, and studied some of the masters of the early-mid 1900s, I have long been aware of the manipulation used to produce some of their great works. And just as I would occasionally re-visit an image in the darkroom years later, I now do the same with digital “negatives”, seeking a different portrayal of the vision that caused caused me to press the shutter in the first place, often with the clarity that comes with experience, blended with the nostalgia of recalling the feeling at the moment when that image was captured.

    Shawn Wright on
  • I think these photo Pharisees would’ve taken the great Eugene Smith outside the walls of the city and had him stoned….Smith famously said “I didn’t write the rules so I don’t have to follow them”.
    Dorothea Lange’s sharecropper’s wife picture : “OK kids just look away now”…so there’s another photographer who’s broken someone else’s rules. I think I’ll stick with Smith, Lange & Steve.
    Thanks for the article, David ;-)

    Mark L on
  • Well said, David. As has been mentioned, there are some fields (journalism, forensics for example) where there is an EXPECTATION of the truth being represented. The problem is that even within that there is great variability. A photographer covering a war zone could focus on soldiers, on a farmer planting a field, on wildflowers or children playing. All of them are true. We each see the world as we Believe it is.

    Beyond that, no one ever asks a painter if what they’re painting is an accurate rendition of a scene. It’s assumed to be interpreted. Photographs have a … stigma (?) of being representative, but it’s simply not true. Ansel Adams (for example) never made the same print twice. No one does. Take the same image and process it with ver. 2 and ver. 6 of Lr (or Ps or whatever) and the same person will process it differently. Give the same raw image to ten people and get ten different results. We begin with where we’re standing and the direction we’re facing. We choose the focus point, the field of view, what to include or not include in the frame, the DoF, the ISO and so many more decisions with Every image, and that’s before we even trip the shutter. Several years ago photographer Alain Briot wrote a post called ‘Just Say Yes’ to answer the question, “Are your images manipulated?” You can find a link to his post and my thoughts here: http://www.wolfnowl.com/2011/10/do-you-manipulate-your-images/

    Mike.

    Mike Nelson Pedde on
  • Ethan – Of course everything is allowed. There are different ways of telling different stories. But context matters too. If you are a journalist then you are bound, I would hope, by a certain code of ethics. But even within those ethics there are all kinds of lies and manipulations, surely you must see that. You say: “In film there is a distinction between documentary and fiction and everybody knows if he is looking now a fictional movie or not.” Are you sure about that? Is documentary filmmaking always true? Is fiction always un-true? I don’t pose my documentary work. But that doesn’t make it truer than those that might – after all, I can still tell a lie with my camera in other ways. I think approaching this subject with a wider lens and greater nuance is important. I also think it’s important for the storyteller to be honest about what they do – Cindy Sherman doesn’t say she’s a journalist.

    David duChemin on
  • So, to paraphrase the epigram about statistics, “Photographs don’t lie, but liars photograph…”

    Well said, David. It’s about the story and the storyteller, not the medium.

    Chris on
  • Hm.
    That means everything is allowed.
    I can pose scenes with people as I like.
    They seem natural but they are not.
    A kind of installation.
    All what counts is the story.
    Nobody knows if it’s real and it doesn’t matter.
    Perhaps nomadic Africans centering around water.
    The goal: To show the spirit of community or the importance of water.

    „Please can you move here a little bit. Much better photo.“

    (Didn’t say it happened. And if nobody should feel accused according to this article.)

    I don’t know.

    In film there is a distinction between documentary and fiction
    and everybody knows if he is looking now a fictional movie or not.

    Cindy Sherman comes in my mind. All artificial.
    But portrait.

    ethan on

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