by Jeff Taylor
The Uptown paper of record has tossed a photog out on his ear for altering a photo. It goes to trust, Observer editor Rick Thames thunders.
No, Rick, I’d say we are stuck at the old Observer bugaboo of editor arrogance twinned with an obsession to win press clubby awards rather than deliver actual journalism to the local community.
To recap, photographer Patrick Schneider embarassed the Observer back in 2003 when other N.C. photogs complained that his award-winning images were altered with Photoshop “too much.” The paper investigated, agreed, and Schneider was stripped of his awards. (Go here for before and after alteration versions of the photos.)
Schneider was also warned not to do any more excessive Photoshopping. In 2005 he won an award for a shot of the 2004 Olympics. He won awards in 2004. Google his work and you’ll see some stunning shots.
This week Schneider shot a Charlotte fireman on a ladder at a fire and the picture took up most of Thursday’s local section front page. Thames now tells us that photo was excessively Photoshopped to make the sky more red and the shot more dramatic.
Where is the violation of trust here? What vital fact — exactly — did Schneider misrepresent to readers?
He merely enhanced information already in the shot, a shot he created by the way he positioned himself on the scene, the equipment the used, his eye, his timing. Schneider, and any good to great photographer, totally manipulates a moment of reality to capture an accurate representation of a moment in time. We get that. Readers are not dumb, but neither are they photographers.
In fact, you could handcuff 1000 different newspaper readers to a veteran photog for a day of reporting and they will never see exactly what the photog sees. Your basic bystander is unlikely, for example, to flatten themselves on the messy ground to get a nice dramatic angle for exciting events. Personally, I want photographers to use every modern tool at their disposal to bring me the most interesting, compelling, and accurate shots they can.
And I would much prefer the Observer to swear off journalism contests and their distortionary effect on news coverage than try to conform to some arbitrary standard of “too much” Photoshop.
Thames is pretending that there is some sort of hand-of-God involved in news images — that reality comes straight through to readers unfiltered. But that is not true of images any more than it is true of news stories or editorials or anything else in his paper — or anyone’s paper. The Observer does not give us reality — it gives us the Observer’s version of reality. And that is fine. We get that.
Now here’s how one photographer, Pedro Meyer, reacted to the 2003 dust-up between Schneider and the Observer:
Stop telling us how an image is supposed to be created. Stop telling us what constitutes the “right color” when in fact you could be color-blind and the images when printed offer variations that surpass the arguments you are presenting against alterations. Stop telling us how our images are supposed to be produced when you place any caption that suits your needs or crop the pictures as you see it fits. Stop telling us about the truth in pictures when you constantly use those very same pictures out of context to satisfy your editorial needs to support texts or headers that have arbitrarily been pulled together. Stop telling us about the truth in photojournalism when what you are selling most times is propaganda disguised as information.
In short, stop manipulating photographers and photography to cover up for what constitutes an industry with a wide and very shameful performance.
I’d love to hear Thames’ response to that, just as I’d love to hear Patrick Schneider’s version of what happened this week.