Manipulation in Photojournalism

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Most of us are have a passing familiarity with Kodachrome film, which only recently went out of production after 75 years of popularity. Paul Simon, in his song named for the color reversal film, sang that Kodachrome "makes you think all the world's/ a sunny day."

There are some critics who take up arms when someone calls manipulated photos "photojournalism" precisely because they agree with Simon- certain filters and lenses do alter the way we perceive the captured image.

Damon Winter' s recent photojournalism series, "A Grunt's Life," shot using the iPhone App Hipstamatic, won third place this year in the Feature Picture Story- Newspaper category of the International Pictures of the Year contest. His subjects were the young American men of the Delta Company 2nd Platoon in Afghanistan.

The picture above is a great example of just one of the many effects that the Hipstamatic App can produce. Significantly, the App creates the effects itself, automatically.

The photographer, however, still makes his/her own creative contribution-- there is no worthy photojournalism series without a significant subject, and that is inevitably chosen by the photographer. He/She then intentionally frames the subject and that can make all the difference in the shot.

For example, take an image like the one of Specialist Jake Fisher smiling broadly and getting air by jumping on an elevated platform salvaged from a bed frame. The subject of the photo, Fisher jumping on the make-shift trampoline, is nostalgic and youthful in itself and photographer Winter chose it specifically for that reason.

Winter's image says these men are too young, too innocent to give their lives in Afghanistan. "Look! Even in the face of their own mortality, they spend their spare time playing the games of impeccant boys," it says.

Since the subject is key to interpreting the message, some say any additions made to the composition by the App only enhance the message already intended by the photographer. In the case of most of these photos, the alterations to the image are barely noticeable.

On the other hand, war and military conflicts are tricky subjects. It may be the case that they deserve special attention, and that it is wrong to alter the way we perceive the subjects in such a serious context.

Also problematic is the fact that the message a received from photographs was a very emotional message for a proclaimed journalist- but there it is, throughout the series. And with emotion come biases. A message about the innocence of our soldiers in Afghanistan can't be called unbiased journalism.

Flawed or not, I think that this series can and should be categorized as photojournalism. It is about a current event and it gives a truthful representation of the events and the life led by grunts in the conflict. The series gives good insight on a significant event in contemporary American history. What do you think?

Photo Credit: Jonas Nilsson Lee, on Flikr, via


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