we move on to respond, let us first establish hopefully with some degree
of clarity what we understand by a documentary photograph. As I see
it, the intentions of a documentary photographer are to record some
aspects of reality, by producing a depiction of what the photographer
saw and which portends to represent that reality in as objective a manner
we can agree to that description, I can already see our critics pounding
on their desks accompanied by some degree of glee on their faces, as
they suggest that this is precisely the reason why there is no room
for the computer to be used in recreating documentary images.
believe we have already discussed in all sorts of forums the fact that
photography per se, is tantamount to manipulation. That the impact of
the lens selected, the film chosen, and all the other technical variables
leave ample room to question the so called "faithful representation"
of reality. So let us not mull over this one endlessly, as I think it
thins the debate rather enhances it.
us explore today, the parallels between photography and other forms
of documentary work. For instance, a journalist brings together his
writings, which represent a synthesis of what the journalist saw and/or
heard, above all by what he imagines are the lines of reason behind
the information selected. The journalist is not some copier machine
that simply reproduces mindlessly what is placed on the platen in front
of her. He weaves and puts together the information in order to insure
that it accurately portrays the information presented in a decision
making process that supports the story being presented.
documentary filmmaker does not just shoot film or video without some
sort of editing process in mind. We only assume that the actors are
not hired, that they are real life characters, and that the settings
are also real life environments rather than constructed sets. Of course
one can go on from profession to profession related to documentary work,
and you will always find the same sort of rationale; the belief that
the representation was based on real life situations and that the information
however real still had to be processed and edited before it was presented
to the public.
why are so many people up in arms about the idea that a photograph edited
in the computer is not really a true documentary representation? As
I have come to understand it, it has mainly to do with past traditions
and customs. It apparently flies in the face of reason, that if one
would alter an image, it no longer could call itself a document. What
is wrong in that analysis is that any and all alterations have been
treated equal (they are all bad). We know for a fact that not all alterations
have the same justifications behind them, that some alterations can
even contribute to enhance the veracity of an image rather than the
opposite. Furthermore, many of the fears related to the conceptual changes
for photography have to do mainly with a loss of certainty of what the
photograph actually is delivering, in so far as a document, with little
debate about the veracity of the content of a given image.
are of course dealing here with the same sort of ethical debates around
editing a story, be that with text or film, even sound tracks, something
everyone has been discussing for a long time. For photography it is
no different. Why should it be? If anything is different it's because
in the past we could not reasonably edit photography in the way we can
today, so when the tools first appeared that empowered us to do so,
everyone just ran for the exits. All those other mediums had always
been edited and were malleable to the nth degree; photography in that
sense, was less flexible. Not that one could not alter documentary images,
just ask the Soviets about all that they did in this respect. I sustain
that photography always lived a life of false pretenses. Today when
we intend to remove that disguise all sorts of defense lines are drawn.
course photography can lead to deception, it always could. What is more,
it's open-ended nature in so far as meaning goes, has always been used
to support whatever the intentions of the photographer. The digital
age has not rushed in an avalanche of alterations as some would have
thought would be the case. If one looks around what is being produced
under the name of photographs one will discover that these are mostly
illustrations. Another category that has grown recently is that of expanding
the realm of the "fantastic" again with no attachment to the
real world. What is less evident however is the work that is being produced
that looks like traditional photographs but created with untraditional
methods, namely digital ones. The reason for this is quite obvious:
unless you are willing to offer the recipe for how you made the image,
no one can really tell what was done (provided it was done well). That
is what makes people so nervous and unwilling to consider as documentary
an image produced digitally.
us look at the cover of ZoneZero this month. We decided that the title
for this image would be: "Where is the Money?" (Which in Spanish
has a double entendre that is quite nice, as the title "A dónde
está la Lana" is based on "lana" meaning at the
same time money as well as wool, for instance that of the sheep in the
background). And the title "Where is the Money" also brings
us back to that famous sentence by Cuba Gooding Jr. asking Tom Cruise
repeatedly: "Where is the Money?" in the film Jerry Maguire
(1996) . Or in looking at the image one could also recollect that other
famous phrase; "Greed is Good" by Michael Douglas in the film,
WallStreet (1987). For me it was interesting to relate such "first
world" movie sentences to a reality in the "third world".
I guess that when it comes to some basic human attitudes we are all
questions arise by the juxtaposition of the man showing us the money.
Why does he put up that money? Is he asking us to pay for something?
Is he doing so because he wants money for being photographed? Is he
selling us some sheep meat? Does he think he needs to pay for his photograph?
What is the relation of power in that encounter between the photographer
and the subject and as an extension us the viewers? What role do the
sheep represent in all of this? Are they symbolic of something other
than their physical presence?
us now evaluate the elements, which compose the image. First is the
issue of the origin of the parts used. In this case the two main elements
are the man holding the money and the background image with the sheep
being skinned. Both pertain to the same place and were take in contiguous
moments in time. They belong together as it were, as they have their
common roots of space and time in a small village in Ecuador where I
took the pictures. The only thing that did not occur in the final picture
is that they appeared visually as they are presented here.
background picture is turned left to right in order to have the light
fall in the same direction in both components of the final image, as
well as making space for the man holding the money. Such an alteration,
I consider no different than what ordinary editing does in film, or
when words are accommodated for better reading within a text. However
this leads to an interesting issue within photography, namely that of
all these elements appeared before my camera as they are in the final
picture, I would not have required doing anything further. Photographers
became accustomed to the notion of "having content and geometry
make an appointment", as Max Kozloff once stated so eloquently,
in great part through luck. One knew one was "lucky" to have
everything fall into place, even though we took full credit for all
the timely decision making abilities involved. The only problem with
some of these so called talents, is that more often than not, the coincidence
of content and geometry coming together would not have been visible
to the plain eye under the best of circumstances. Or worse yet, one
would proceed like fishermen who go about their task casting a wide
net, and then seeing what came up in the catch. Photographers shooting
off numerous rolls of film with motors on the camera in order to shoot
faster than even the eye can see, and then going through the "catch"
to discover which were the "good ones". The process then called
am of course not questioning the validity of patience that some great
photographers have exerted in order to get at exactly the image that
they imagined, but even when patience was at the core of such endeavors
an element of chance would inevitably crop up here and there.
personally dislike the notion that my work be determined mainly by luck.
I'd rather fail on my own efforts rather than attribute poor results
to the absence of luck. The reverse of this argument is of course that
I like to determine what an image looks like on the basis of my intentions,
said that, photography has today a wonderful opportunity with which
to enhance its options to create an image aside of luck. Now I can,
like other creators who choose to create a documentary story, pull all
the strings of what makes an image a stronger one, by either eliminating,
adding, re organizing, those pieces of information which make up the
far as the factual evidence of "what was", as some like to
state, are those traces of light which give evidence of what was there.
In my picture nothing appears within the frame that wasn't there, in
so far as the reality of the space. Yes the order has been altered and
changed, but then what is the difference between my computer alteration,
and the photographer who chooses his or her angle to place a camera?
Or when the photographer asks, sometimes by nudging ever so lightly
for those depicted to move their location to a more favorable light
Jacobson, wrote in a letter to me some years ago about his concern that
in the future, digital photographers would become increasingly sloppy,
because they (photographers) could, after all, erase those elements,
which they were too lazy to deal with in the first place. I am sure
that sloppy work preceded digital technology and thus the argument about
such risks only tended to obscure the rich potential for making ever
better images, precisely the opposite of his concerns. He was preoccupied
the tools would be misused, I was convinced of the opposite that they
would lead to creativity not sloppiness.
urge photographers everywhere to test the waters, to experience coming
up with documentary work that is very strong by means of applying digital
technology. The risks for abuse are obviously present, but they have
always been there, for other mediums as well, none of this ever stopped
responsible creators from using all their tools. Documentary Photography
has been redefined; it is time to prove it.
Pedro Meyer's photographs are found in the collections of more than 40 major museums throughout the world. He's also authored several books, including Los Cohetes Duraron Todo el Dia; Tempii di America; and Espejo de Espinas. His column appears each month in Camera Works.