Michelle Orange on the ways that photography can mislead and even change reality:
It may be that some of the great philosophical work of our time is taking place, hidden and unheralded, in the field of image forensics. Where but under the scrutiny of digital experts who draw a line separating false representations of the world from truthful ones are contemporary questions of perception and reality brought so keenly to bear? Who but these detectives of the real pursue as explicitly — as intricately — our crime wave of the fake, the contrived, the uncanny, the exponential image? With exquisite, singular focus, photo forensics engages the conundrum that photographic technology has tilted toward, steadily but ever more frankly, since its inception over 150 years ago: Does reality have a tipping point?
Dangling from the cliff edge of that question is the World Press Photo competition. In recent years the annual competition, which recognizes images submitted by photojournalists working across the globe, has dissolved into chaos, recrimination and a round of post-mortem soul-searching. Earlier this year, the WPP was forced to disqualify 22 percent of the competition’s finalists after forensics experts determined that certain images had been altered or manipulated beyond the currently accepted industry standard. This almost triples the number of disqualifications from a year earlier, suggesting a certain forward momentum, a trend larger and more fearsome than any set of standards.
Swedish photographer Paul Hansen won the 2013 World Press Photo competition with an image of a Gaza City funeral procession, led through an alley by men bearing the shrouded bodies of two children killed in an Israeli airstrike. Separate from the horror it depicts, with its fish-eye depth of field, stark figuration and stony matte light, the photo meets the eye as unreal. Complaints in this vein led to an investigation of the image, specifically its manipulation of tone — a quality central to photography’s evolving grammar of realism. Somehow both a beautifying tool and, in the right hands, possessed of the very texture of reality (as every Instagram filter maven knows), tone is transformative. For that reason, “excessive toning” is against WPP rules; Hansen said he adjusted tone only to balance uneven light, “in effect to recreate what the eye sees.” Ultimately, Hansen retained his prize: the judges stood behind what they saw, though it would appear their eyes prefer altered images a good portion of the time.