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november 2010

Photographic storytelling


by Hans Durrer

"On The Economist's Cover, Only a Part of the Picture" titled the New York Times on 5 July 2010. The text read:

"It was the ideal metaphor for a politically troubled president. There was President Obama on the cover of the June 19 issue of The Economist, standing alone on a Louisiana beach, head down, looking forlornly at the ground. The problem was, he was not actually alone. The photograph was just edited to make it look that way.

The unaltered image, shot on May 28 by a Reuters photographer, Larry Downing, shows Adm. Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard and Charlotte Randolph, a local parish president, standing alongside the president. But in the image that appeared on The Economist's cover, Admiral Allen and Ms. Randolph had been scrubbed out, replaced by the blue water of the Gulf of Mexico."


This is what Emma Duncan, deputy editor of The Economist, had to say about the cover:

"Yes, Charlotte Randolph was edited out of the image (Admiral Allen was removed by the crop). We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers. We often edit the photos we use on our covers ... it is to bring out the central character. We don't edit photos in order to mislead.

I asked for Ms. Randolph to be removed because I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn't the point of the story. 'The damage beyond the spill' referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America."

  The problem with Ms. Duncan's argument is of course that she can't possibly know, and control, what people will read into a picture yet there is no doubt that Obama looks more isolated and lost in the cropped pic.
Next Although we know that photographs are often manipulated, we want them to be true. Our belief into the truthfulness of pictures is such that we only question its veracity when someone points out that, and how, we have been lied to.
  Pedro Meyer of Zone Zero wants to strip photography of its moralistic connotations and believes "that every photograph ever made has been the outcome of some manipulation." In an email exchange with me, he argued that the standards that are applied to writers should also be applied to photographers. I couldn't agree more for it would put photography in its proper place — as a way of storytelling.

But what about press photography? That certainly isn't storytelling, or is it? Although it essentially is indeed storytelling (look what I have decided to show you), press photography is perceived (and expected to be) something entirely different: evidence of things being observed.

Next Recently, on Tuesday, September 14, Al-Ahram, the state-run newspaper in Egypt, ran the photo above that was supposedly taken during the Middle East peace talks in Sharm el-Sheikh. .


Well it wasn't: the original photo looked like the one at the right &mdash it was taken at the time when the peace talks were formally re-launched with Barack Obama leading his guests instead of Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak, and with its location the White House instead of the Red Sea resort.

What should we conclude from this? That we must always question pictures, and the most important questions are: Who is the source of this picture? Can I trust this source? And, who profits from the publication of this pic?

Remember the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? And the photo-shopped photograph that the company put on its website in June of this year? It showed BP-staff looking at ten gigantic videoscreens with pictures of what happened under water. In reality however two of the screens were empty. Shortly afterwards, the Washington Post reported that a blogger had detected more manipulated pictures on the BP-website that showed a helicopter in the air (and thus giving the impression of being engaged in cleaning efforts) when in fact it was not in the air at all but on the ground.

  Spiegel online called these manipulations a "PR-mishap," and the Kronen Zeitung in Vienna spoke of a "PR-debacle". Would they have qualified the Al-Ahram-manipulation similarly, one wonders. I prefer to call a spade a spade: all of these pics are not only misrepresenting what was in front of the lens, these pics were made to lie.

To believe (and rely on) a company website, a state run newspaper, The Economist, or any other information source, to truthfully inform us is naïve and irresponsible for all of these have their particular agendas, and are of course entitled to them.

Instead of expecting press photographs to not lie, we would be well-advised to ask ourselves whether we can trust the picture providers to tell us the stories that unfolded in front of the camera. For it is not the pictures that are lying, it is the picture providers that make them lie.

  2010 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes