Fred Ritchin began writing on photography and digital imaging in 1984 for the New York Times Magazine. Since then he has authored three books on the subject: In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography (1990), After Photography (2008), and Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen (2013), the latter exploring media strategies for social change. He was picture editor of the New York Times Magazine from 1978-82, created the first multimedia version of the New York Times newspaper in 1994-95, and is now Dean Emeritus of the International Center of Photography in New York.
The Post-Photographic Challenge
We are living in the Age of the Image with billions of photographs as well as videos uploaded daily, trillions available online, yet we are not sure what they mean, how they help, or whether they can be believed. Is that “sel e” a self- portrait, an exploration of identity, or a form of branding formulated to increase someone’s status online? Is that a photograph of an actual event, or a fabrica- ted image made to simulate a photograph of an event that never happened? In this era of “post-truth,” of virulent opinions and media bubbles, of allegations of “fake news” by government leaders, what is the role of the journalistic or documentary photograph for maintaining the public record? And, in its current state, can it still enable constructive social change?
A 1990 book of mine, In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography, argued that the imaging software being created then would allow us to re-create the world, and ourselves, “in our own image,” using the convenient myth that “the camera never lies” to camou age purposeful deceits as photographs. I was responding, in part, to the 1982 cover image of the mainstream publication, National Geographic, in which image-manipulation software was employed. In this case it was used to relocate one of the pyramids of Giza behind another to make a vertical image from a horizontal photograph so as to t it on the maga- zine’s cover.
Two years later the modi cation was explained to me by the magazine’s editor as, in his opinion, merely the retroactive repositioning of the photographer a few feet to one side so as to get another point of view. In 1982, surprisingly, National Geographic had already embraced a version of photographic time travel. In the digital environment the “decisive moment,” photographer Henri Cartier- Bresson’s famous formulation of “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the signi cance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression,” could now happen retroacti- vely any time after the initial moment itself.
Less sanguine, and concerned about the enduring integrity of the journalistic photograph, National Geographic’s director of photography said that the intro- duction of such a technique was “like limited nuclear warfare. There ain’t none.” In any case, the reader had not been informed of the modi cation, and a series of highly publicized alterations of cover images in other publications (Time, TV Guide, Newsday, etc.) that would follow contributed to public skepticism concer- ning the photograph’s witnessing function. Given this erosion of trust, the photojournalistic community did little in response to bolster public con dence in the photograph.
But the issue was not only one of digital modi cations. While photographs have always been interpretive, constructions dependent upon the knowledge and intuition of the photographer who makes the picture, the widespread use in journalistic publications of photographs of staged events as if they were spontaneous, and of imagery that emphasized the spectacular without providing context, were equally deleterious to photography’s continued role as a social referent.
So, for example, after the 2011 killing by US forces of Osama bin Laden, mas- termind of the September 11 attacks a decade before, a historic retaliation that was supposed to help resolve a nation’s enduring pain, President Barack Obama said: “It is important to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not oating around as an incitement to additional violence—as a propaganda tool.” House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers concurred with the president’s contention but added: “Conspiracy theorists around the world will just claim the photos are doctored anyway.” And Obama agreed: “Certainly there’s no doubt among al-Qaeda members that he is dead. . . . And so we don’t think that a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference. There are going to be some folks who deny it. The fact of the matter is, you will not see Bin Laden walking on this earth again.”
If we are now no longer of the opinion that “a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference,” then why make photographs? And if too contested, too in ammatory, too malleable, too questionable, too much implica- ted in an image war to be useful to the public as evidence of a very major event, what are photographs good for? Such skepticism also helps to explain why in recent years, with the exception of a very few images of very small children, including the 2015 photograph of the drowned three-year-old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, and the 2018 photograph of two-year-old Honduran migrant Yanela Sanchez hysterically crying at the US border, there have been few photographs that have attained the iconic status necessary to focus the world on critical issues (some photos may go momentarily “viral,” but soon fade from public consciousness, in part due to a lack of a “front page” to sustain them). In this media environment more innovative strategies that are less dependent upon the previous century’s belief system in the inherent power of the photograph need to be formulated as well.
Furthermore, this era of photographs made malleable via Photoshop and other software may very soon seem like a moment of comparative innocence. It has already become increasingly easy to synthesize from scratch not only photogra- phs but also video and audio, so that the results will be nearly indistinguishable from the actual thing. Work is being done in laboratories in many countries, much of it with arti cial intelligence, to provide inexpensive tools to create rea- listic photographic-like portraits of non-existent people, to produce videos rea- listically portraying non-existent events, and to synthesize speeches that sound like they come from the mouths of world leaders (one such recently synthesized speech online, simulating the voice of President John F. Kennedy, was the one he was to give the day that he was assassinated in Dallas).
A recent discussion concerns the ethically challenging advent of “deepfakes” of female celebrities, their faces composited onto those of others performing in sexually explicit videos. Soon this software is expected to be made available for widespread use. The potential to use this kind of software to place prominent people in a variety of situations, such as having a world leader seem to declare war or confess to corruption, will create a multitude of challenges. Whether such software has actually been utilized or not, its existence will call into question much of what we view online, hear on the radio, watch on television, or read in our newspapers and magazines. As one deepfakes user commented, “If anything can be real, nothing is real.” Or, as technologist Aviv Ovadya, who recently gathered a consortium of colleagues in the tech industry to try to combat fake news and camou aged bots, asked, “What happens when anyone can make it appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did?”
This calls into question the functioning not only of journalism, but of democra- tic institutions that require citizens to be credibly informed. As Zeynep Tufekci stated in Wired magazine, “The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself.” (It is worth noting that in the rst 828 days of his presidency, according to the Washington Post, Donald Trump made 10,111 false or misleading claims, an obfuscating strategy embraced by a number of other world leaders who also attack media reports as “fake news.”) In this vein, software that allows the public to easily synthesize realistic-looking people and events requires a strong response from institutions that take authenticity seriously. But after recently reporting on the use of arti cial intelligence to create fake videos, New York Times writer Kevin Roose remarked: “And there’s probably nothing we can do except try to bat the fakes down as they happen, pressure social media companies to ght misinformation aggressively, and trust our eyes a little less every day.”
But this begs the question: If we cannot trust our eyes in this age of image, what then will be able to rely upon? On an institutional level, considerably more has to be done by publications and photographers themselves to verify media and assure the readers of its integrity. Should there be a labeling system that is strictly enforced among reputable publications and photographers to categorize photographs, such as “reportage,” “photo illustration,” “photo opportunity,” “altered photograph,” and so on? Should heavily manipulated photographs be marked with an icon, such as the “not-a-lens” icon that I had proposed in the 1990s (a small square with a circle in it representing a lens, a diagonal line running over it) so the reader can click on it and nd how the photograph was modi ed? The “four corners project” that I also conceptualized allows photogra- phers to use each of the photograph’s corners to add supplementary information online, including their own caption and code of ethics, the backstory, related imagery and links to other websites (see fourcornersproject.org). Many other ideas need to be investigated.
One of the responses to this evolving media climate by a number of photogra- phers is to rely less upon the assumption of the photograph’s inherent veracity and more upon a slower accumulation of evidence via a number of media, pho- tography included, that ultimately provides insights into an underlying process rather than concentrating primarily on its symptoms. It is not a new approach, but one that is now much more broadly practiced. Philip Jones Grif ths’ 1971 book, Vietnam Inc., can be considered a pioneer in this effort, showing the deci- sion-making process among military leaders, juxtaposing the relatively unseen pilots with their victims, explaining how young girls are introduced into the sex trade, and undermining his own dramatic, at times heroic black-and-white ima- gery with captions that he wrote pointing out the absurdity of what he depicts: “US combat troops arrive, outnumbering the enemy 3 to 1 and possessing the most sophisticated military hardware; the job seemed easy. Earlier, spirits were high among the troops, intoxicated as much by the spectacle of their own strength as by the cold beer delivered to them daily.”
There are many today taking exploring massive social ills with more of a concep- tual documentary approach, from chemical poisoning by Monsanto (Matthieu Asselin) to torture at Guantanamo (Edmund Clark, Debi Cornwall) to the blue skies over 1078 World War II concentration camps (Anton Kusters), drones as weaponized surveillance (Tomas van Houtryve), and the satellites monitoring us (Trevor Paglen). Utilizing techniques of the artist, journalist and documentarian, much of this work is published in books and shown in exhibitions as well as appearing in various publications.
And there are some interesting metrics as well: Gideon Mendel’s photographic work on a pilot program to provide HIV-positive South Africans with anti- retroviral medicine is credited by UNAIDS with encouraging contributions that allowed eight million people to get life-saving treatment, and Magnum’s Access to Life project with multiple photographers raised $1 billion for a similar goal. More recently, a screening at a 2015 fundraising conference in Kuwait of a virtual reality lm on the life of a 12-year-old Syrian refugee, “Clouds Over Sidra,” is said to have raised $3.8 billion for relief efforts; the use of virtual reality is becoming more widespread among humanitarian organizations attemp- ting to get potential donors and others to empathize with the plight of those in dif cult circumstances.
Hopefully, the media revolution is only beginning.
© Fred Ritchin, 2019
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Zeke magazine.