In Our Own Image – Prof. Fred Ritchin

30th January 2014

In 1990 Fred Ritchin had a book published entitled ‘In Our Own Image’ .  Three editions and twenty-four years later this book has become something of a seminal work about what the revolution of the digital age of photography presaged for the world.  In the beginning Ritchin could only provide educated guesses as to what he foresaw, but by the time of the second edition in 1999 many of his predictions were fact.  In 2010, the third, ’20th Anniversary Edition’, was issued and most of his predictions now fact or rapidly becoming fact (there are a couple of predictions which haven’t materialised in the form he predicted).

It’s remarkably eerie that I’ve just read this book that discusses throughout almost its entirety the manipulation of images and the impact and implications this could have/will have/has had on the way photo-journalism was/is practiced, viewed by the media editors and the reading public, when at this precise point in time Narciso Contreras has been sacked by Associated Press for manipulating an image beyond their ethical boundaries. Seemingly their boundaries are limited, ‘AP and other news organisations approve photographers’ use of software to lighten or darken photos to replicate scenes as they witnessed them, the news service could not countenance Contreras’s manipulation of a scene that was not true to reality.’ (As if they really believe any image is true to reality, a point made many times in the book).  One of the major themes is the potential for manipulation of journalistic images to support political, moral or ethical stances taken by, particularly, the small numbers of owners of the media, their editors and/or the crusading nature of the journalists themselves and their collective suspected collusion with governments of any persuasion to convince the public of the rights or wrongs of a particular cause.

Another major point that’s made is the differences in cultural acceptance of what’s right and wrong with this practice, what’s acceptable and what’s not and the meaning behind what’s shown in an image.  The largest media groups tend to be Western in the their ownership and orientation, and the judgements that’re made about situations tend to be from a western perspective.  However, the reality of what is shown in an image possibly means something entirely different to a third-world peasant than to you or me.  His example is of a South American shoe-shine boy who is asked to photograph an example of exploitation, having had the word explained in terms he understands, and for the boy to go out and photograph a nail sticking out of a length of upright wood.  The image that was expected from the boy was totally different to the one he turned up with.  He’d been expected to photograph some giant, multi-national company logo or a sign of imperialistic power.  The real explanation was much simpler, down to earth and very close to home.  The nail represented the man who charged him half-a-days income to hang his shoeshine box on the nail so he didn’t have to carry the heavy box several miles backwards and forwards from home every day.

The moral of that story is that we need to be very careful about condemning what we see as bad before we’ve looked at the context in its entirety.

Ritchin takes us from the days when the large newspapers would have as many as twenty, full-time, staff photographers covering international issues, to todays situation where the professional photo-journalist is just about extinct and very few, if any, staff photographers are employed by the giant media corporations.  He discusses whether this is good or bad from the point of view that any images  we now see of distant conflict areas, such as Syria, are possibly more correct because they’re taken by a local who knows the area better than a western visitor, knows the situation more intimately than the western visitor, but also harbours the prejudices of the local caught up in the situation, has no professional ethical training and is un-attributable, which from the publishers point of view may be acceptable but not when the veracity of the image content is called into question.

When an image is able to be manipulated by anyone with a reasonable laptop computer and the right software, the question of authorship becomes much more of a problem than was the case in the days of film.  The photograph has always been seen as something that supports the written word and as a result of past generations of photo-journalists either being unable or unwilling to stand-up for their right to equal byline space as the written journalist, the question of editorial control of what image is used has also been lost.  This is now exacerbated by the fact that parts of images can be taken and used with parts from other images and neither photographer gets the credit or editorial control.  This practice is not necessarily used in photo-journalism, but who really knows, but is widely practiced in other areas of the media.  A famous case is that of Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise being depicted as having their photograph taken together, but in fact were shot half-a-world-apart and composited together.  Neither the caption or the photo credit made mention of this!

What this book was describing all those years ago has in greater part become reality, to a greater or lesser extent, and the public, although perhaps latently aware of what’s happening seem content to let it happen and continue.  We as photographers know it happens, and although we decry the practices we collude with it continuing by failing, or having, insufficient power to prevent it as we don’t form ourselves into a cohesive band to break the stranglehold the media moguls have.

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