I once walked in on a news photographer printing a picture, back in the pre-digital olden days. The photo was of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s U.N. ambassador. The photog printed the picture several times while I was there, burning and dodging with his fingers, messing with the contrast, goofing with this and that. Finally I asked him what was the big hoop-de-do over what was, after all, a glorified headshot.
“I’m trying to make her look more wrinkly,” he said. “I hate her.”
Huh. Ohhhh-kay. We all have our own ways of wasting time at work — you’re reading one of my favorites — and this seemed to fall somewhere in the midrange of the what’s-the-point scale. If you click the link above, which includes a photo of Kirkpatrick from roughly the same era, you’ll notice several things about her, among them a) she’s no spring chicken, and b) she wasn’t exactly Heidi Klum to start with. She was then nearly 60, and looked like what she is — a public intellectual with a low-maintenance hairdo and no patience for elaborate makeup rituals, unafraid to look her age because she didn’t live in the mirror, but in her mind. I don’t share many of Kirkpatrick’s views, but hey, we can always use more women who don’t give a fat rat’s ass what In Style says about them.
I’m trying to figure what the chances are that some impressionable soul read the story about Kirkpatrick’s speech, looked at the photo printed to enhance her wrinkles and said, “You know, if neoconservatism has no room in it for decent skin-care products, it has no room in it for me.” I’m thinking it’s pretty low. In this, it has approximately the same impact as the infamous Reuters photo that’s the subject of this Slate piece.
The link will take you to both photos, side-by-side — the original picture of a smoldering Beirut skyline, and the one Reuters transmitted to its clients, with the smoke darkened and made a little more bulbous through the clumsy use of Photoshop’s clone tool. This was discovered by bloggers earlier in the week, and made much of.
I dunno. I looked at both pictures and thought: Um, why? That Beirut was bombed is not in question. That smoke was rising was not in question. The smoke was a fact, like Jeane Kirkpatrick’s wrinkles. How many people would look at the smoke-enhanced version and say, “Well, this changes everything.” Again, I’m thinking it’s something like zero.
The rest of that Slate article points out the obvious: That every photo is a lie. This is a duh revelation if there ever was one. Haven’t you ever arrived at a vacation spot and thought, “It looks nothing like the pictures”? Haven’t you ever taken a photo and said, later, “It didn’t look like this”? Hell, haven’t you seen a photo of yourself lately? I look in the mirror and I see the same me I saw 25 years ago. Photos would suggest things are different now. Damn photos.
After years of this, I’ve come up with a pretty simple explanation: A photo is a fact, but a fact is not the truth.
It applies to most of the rest of journalism, too: A story is a collection of facts (or better be). It’s not necessarily the truth.
If you had nothing better to do, you could spend the rest of the year researching the ethics of photojournalism to know why, exactly, it was wrong to enhance Jeane Kirkpatrick’s wrinkles for personal reasons. And you could spend the rest of the next five years writing a book about the truth and lies of photography, but you might as well give up now, because Susan Sontag pretty much covered that waterfront already.
I pity photo editors these days; Photoshop has rocked their world in a million ways, many of them unwelcome. Good Photoshoppers can use the software to make so-so pictures better, good pictures great and every picture a potential firing offense. So many decisions seem so innocuous — a photographer took a Diet Coke can off a coffeetable in a news picture a few years ago, and whole forests had to die to accommodate all the fulmination. Meanwhile, the standards are different everywhere. I work mainly in magazines now, and if you tell a magazine photographer he can’t add or remove things from a picture he’ll quit on the spot; digital manipulation is as necessary as pretty models.
I guess what most interests me about this case is the essential irony of it, which is the same that lies at the heart of the Jayson Blair/Stephen Glass scandals, too — that some people want to be successful journalists so badly that they’re willing to commit the single unforgivable sin in journalism, the one that closes doors forever. That is, to step outside the facts/truth model into the bullshit/lies realm. Even before it was discovered to be a fake, that picture of the roiling smoke was small change. And yet.