Fact versus Fiction

posted by Bridget on 21 August 2013

The latest issue of the BJP tackles the thorny issue of whether photojournalism's remit to report events can embrace fictional devices to get their message across.

Throughout the history of photography there are stories of how photographers have altered, manipulated, choreographed events in order to get the best image and tell their story.

The controversy of the Iwo Juma flag raising photograph; W Eugene Smith's composite portrait of the missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer; or more recently Edgar Martin's cloned portrayal of the housing recession for the New York Times are all well known examples of photographers seeking to improve upon their decisive moment of truth.

In the August 2013 issue of the British Journal of Photography, acting Deputy Editor - Olivier Laurent is arguing for the legitimisation of mixing fiction into fact. With a small previso that such photographs come with the correct labels, [perhaps that should be a health warning] it is OK, he says, for photographjournalists and documentary photographers to be creative in the telling of their stories. To quote Laurent, "In the end, it doesn't matter if the images produced are works of fiction, or records of actual facts...What matters is that they tell a story, take people by surprise, and create an emotion and a lasting impression."

And so the era of the impartial observer is over. Some may argue it never existed, but for many photographers, Don McCullin, James Nachtwey, Phillip Griffiths to name but a few, to photograph what they saw with as much honesty and non-bias as they could muster was why they were photographers. It was precisely because their audience believed in their struggle to report and believed in the photographs they were presented with, that such work was so important and influential.

If we allow bias, journalism of attachment and now fiction to cloud our view, photojournalism is well and truly dead.

In an age when we no longer believe in anything, much less the veracity of photography, now is precisely the time when we must argue all the more strongly for detached observed reporting. Journalism simply cannot be based on the idea that any truth will do, this is the way to propaganda.

By presenting something as near to the truth as you can, enables your audience to decide for themselves, surely this is the point for any good storyteller. To tell a lie to get to a bigger truth means you treat your audience as gullible and stupid. That way lies a politics that is unthinkable.

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