Damon Winters’ iPhone-taken story, A Grunt’s Life, was awarded 3rd place Feature Story in the 2011 Pictures of the Year International. This has been met with controversy. Many, including most prominently Chip Litherland, say the pictures aren’t photojournalism and that they don’t represent what was in front of the camera, others, such as Logan Mock-Bunting, say that the images violate POYi’s rules that stipulate, “No masks, borders, backgrounds or other artistic effects are allowed.”
I have no problem with the pictures being allowed in the contest. There haven’t been masks, borders, or backgrounds added to the picture (and “other artistic effects” should be read as non-photographic elements added to a picture; the structure of the sentence in the rule makes this clear–“other” indicates that forbidden effects would be of a sort similar to borders, backgrounds, and masks and not of a sort that includes such things as color filters, flash, grain, black and white conversion), and I think there’s no reason not to call this photojournalism. What follows is a modified version of my response to these concerns that I posted in a conversation on the Luceo Images facebook page.
If the color modifications of an iPhone application are to be forbidden, why allow black and white or flash in photojournalism, then? That’s not what the scene looked like in front of the camera. Or why allow ISOs, apertures, and shutter speeds that manipulate light in a way that the human eye can’t achieve (the human eye can’t have infinite focus starting on something at 3 feet away; the human eye can’t let in enough light in an instant as a ISO3200 on bulb; etc.)? As long as the content remains true–that is, nothing has been posed or removed or added to the frame–and it’s intended (photographed and presented) as journalism, I don’t see a reason to disqualify pictures from the contest.
I see arguments against these types of photos as similar to complaints about Salgado making pictures that were too beautiful for the subject matter. Our goal should be to make people look, and these do an admirable job at commanding the attention, not just because of the content but because of how the pictures look and how they were taken. So much photojournalism shot in the traditional style gets ignored or washed over; we need to use everything at our disposal to connect to audiences.
And I’m wary of a lot of the argumentation around these images.
Slippery slope arguments don’t work. It’s perfectly possible to imagine a world where Winter’s photos are awarded, but more traditional photography still gets published and awarded. In fact, there’ve been other problems with over-toning in the past, or Holgas, or other weird techniques, but it hasn’t destroyed all of the other photojournalism that’s still being produced, nor does it mean that non-hipstamatic photojournalism won’t hold public attention. Recent coverage of Egypt proves that. Even the most straightforward wire photography was going viral.
Arguments about the tradition of photojournalism don’t work, either. Older ideas aren’t necessarily better. They might be, but we need evidence that new photojournalism tells a story less accurately or connects with audiences less well than old, straightforward photojournalism. Only then can we fully discount the new style. If we held on to the traditions, we’d be moving corpses like Brady, we’d be shooting daguerrotypes, we’d be posing and using huge lighting setups like the early Life photographers, we’d be layering frames like W. Eugene Smith, we’d all still use film. Traditions fall by the wayside. Methods evolve. New styles emerge.
I don’t want to say that just because the technique is novel or popular that that makes it okay, either. That’s fallacious reasoning. Danielle Steele sells a lot of books, but that doesn’t make her books great literature.
As I see it, the photos are faithful to the story and to how things were in front of the camera, and that’s all that really matters. The colors might be juiced a bit, but that doesn’t invalidate the work. Really, the colors aren’t changed much at all compared to work such as Richard Mosse’s infrared work exploring conflict in Congo.Artistic technique goes a long way in communicating tone and emotion in photography, and I think we (photographers and the public) would be a lot worse off if we (photographers) couldn’t use aesthetic language in photojournalism.
[Matt, the other half of dvafoto, wanted me to say this: ‘Matt agrees with everything but wanted to record the fact that he still hates iPhone photographs. Even his own.’]