Believe it or Not?
- Mark Igbinadolor
A young artist has sent into the New York Times, an image of his own creation, but one comprised of many references and elements which have replaced other that used to exist in the image. We are tasked with understanding this man's intentions but also whether such an image has place in the New York Times? As we continue down this digital timeline, in an era of the internet, where do we culturally stand with photography and imagery?
Can we believe what we see?
Are artists tasked with telling the truth?
Does an image become a new image when it has been manipulated?
And should we be manipulating Images?
These are some of the many major questions we are facing in as we approach a cultural crossroads for what we accept both visually and ethically in a world where any and all references are available for us.
I have brought in two friends, colleagues, and experts in their field, to share their viewpoints on this scenario and whether we can come to a conclusion about the implications of an image that is comprised of many other images.
How different has what he did to that of a collage artist? Or of a painter with many colors? He crafted these images into pixels and created a new image, a new mosaic truly! We shouldn't be afraid to utilize what we have around us in this moment and instead should recognize the privilege we have in this moment.
Morally, he did nothing wrong. If you read the email communication between him and the art director, he broke down how he manipulated and change the imagery, bringing in his own vision, his own references, and his own edit. The collage, the image, we are presented with represents its parts, but the sum total is much different than the individual pieces. He intentionally knew to alter the image far enough to remove the context from which it came from, thus rendering a new image for the audience intended. Ethically I see no wrong doing.
Again, how different is his manipulation and changes to that of any of the imagery we see in fashion magazines, the editing and changing done to perfect our imperfections for social media, and even the way we edit photos before sharing with friends and family online? I do not fundamentally see a difference. We are in a new era, a new time. Our ethics must shift to accommodate the changes we see. Naysayers are sticking to analog perspectives for their morality when we are in a completely digital era.
And how many contemporary artists do we now know of, on top of older artists, who challenge our perceptions of reality? Are images ever meant to accurately portray reality? Did they always? Must we always believe what we see?
I think of artist Andrea Gursky who's work is some of the most sought after right now. His images show a world that does not actually exist and yet some eyes are not able to tell the difference, and that's okay. Curator Ralph Rugoff, while discussing Gursky and his work, mentioned that in general with the medium, “people were doing darkroom tricks and making things appear in photography that weren’t there.” (Andreas Gursky Is Taking Photos of Things That Do Not Exist) The truth of the matter is, we are no more inclined to believe, or hold more skepticism, towards images than we ever should have. Artist have altered reality since the dawn of the medium and digital technology has only given us new tools, not changed the capability of manipulation.
What if we consider manipulation an art form in itself, or atleast a particular way of communicating. The Economist's cover controversy emphasizes the emotion that can be brought out in an image through subtle changes(On The Economist’s Cover, Only a Part of the Picture), granted we dive into the ethics and moral of such changes, but the fact that cropping and altering an image can stir a strong dialogue regarding the medium should be a sign that images still hold a value to society and that we are still able to be moved by them! The staff noted that the changes made to the cover was not done to mislead, but to hone in on what they wanted to communicate to their audience. Manipulation can improve communication and that is worth something!
Or what of artists where manipulation of an image is needed to convey a message properly. Barbara Kruger's imagery is manipulated through black and white filters, and hyper contrast to draw out an energy and perspective on the subject central to the image. The manipulation becomes a heightened version of the story she is trying to tell through the image. Her work, and others remind me, albeit less grim, of the perspective Andy Grunberg about the future of photography and its place in a digital era. "In the future, readers of newspapers and magazines will probably view news pictures more as illustrations than as reportage, since they will be well aware that they can no longer distinguish between a genuine image and one that has been manipulated." (Photography in the Age of Electronic Stimulation) Should we hold fear of this? Kruger shows a highly artistic world in which image can supplement design and ultimately transform into something different.
I stand with the camp against running this image and if the magazine is concerned with its future, it would join us in stopping this kind of behavior. His emails are filled with a lackadaisical attitude to the nature of his crime. Sir, I ask you to engage the nature of your actions and what that means in a larger cultural sense for photography and image making.
Flat out, he stole images without getting the necessary permissions to run the image. David W. Dunlap wrote in a New York Times post that, "There’s probably no more troubling issue facing photojournalism than the digital manipulation of images that are supposed to faithfully represent what’s in front of the camera." (Lens, New York Times) And my sentiments match, what does an image mean if it is not the truth and nor is it a reality that the photographer experienced. If the Times in 2009, in this post, clearly defined digital manipulation of insert, rearrangement, deletion, etc, of elements in an image, then it should recognize what the artist in question did as so evidently digital manipulation.
Even if the art director wasn't aware of where this elements of his image were derived, it doesn't negate the fact that someone else will be able to note the inappropriate use. What about the contexts behind the images? Or of the artist used and the affiliations and politics? We are in an era where people do not care about the ethics of this medium and intellectual property.
We are becoming more and more sketpical of the world around us, especially as a marketable audience. We want the truth. In an article ran online by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy, we read of multiple cases where audiences do not believe an image, even despite being handed evidence that the image is real, as what happened with photographer Richard Lam. (Seeing isn’t Believing: Photo Manipulation in the Digital Age) Perhaps, in an effort to build back trust and to reduce skepticism, we start taking the steps to limit exposure to altered reality images such as the one created by this artist.
If this piece is ran, think of the implications. Others will see the magazine aligning itself with this kind of behavior and think that taking images for your own intent and then to want to publish them in a publication is acceptable. The image slowly is losing its worth in society, pictures use to tell the truth, they used to stand for something. Now, how are we supposed to know what to believe? This kind of attitude towards ownership of other's creations in a medium and a lack of ethical and moral respect, has led to the issues we've seen as of late. Take the Deepfakes debacle outlined by FastCo., when people were given the technology to warp the truth and weren't held accountable, the technology slowly devolved to a particular use, "Suddenly, the entire internet had access to a technique that allowed them to map anyone–acquaintances, minors, enemies–into sexually explicit videos." (The War on What's Real)
Have we thought if all this technology is good? We're so set on trying to build up all this technology but are we culturally even invested in digital anymore? The biggest digital camera companies are losing, experiencing "extraordinary loss" as innovation has been stagnant and the market for individuals interested in what these cameras provide is dwindling. (The Death of Digital Photography as We Know it) And maybe this will translate later to Photoshop and other digital manipulation softwares, as maybe, audiences will go back to wanting the truth as we become more and more saturated with false realities? We're becoming lazy, instead of creating our own elements to comprise our photographs, we instead just manipulate another's work. Kevin Sintumuang best said it in his WSJ article "Snap Out of It", that "While technology has imbued the minutia of our experience with meaning, it's also turning us into lazy photographers." Perhaps it is time we do snap out of it.
Perhaps if the magazine was open to running the image with an adjacent corner credit list, detailing the source of the images in the overall newly created image than I would be open to starting the conversation of running this image, but until then, I stand firm in my decision to axe the image.
I stand with the defense for running the image created by the artist.
Looking at the original elements of the image versus the new overall image, and with my general understanding of copyright law, there is no ethical issues in place. The work is a derivative of the original copyrighted imagery, and is so different than the original context and visuals, that it is not breaking any laws. Lastly, parts of the new image are of his own creation and individual artistic touch that again deems it as a new "work".
In the end, we believe Doug has provided a stronger reasoning for the magazine to run the image than to not. Whether the art director is aware or unaware of the background of the image, the artist's intent remained the same. There was no implications of malicious intent but rather a creative use of the materials provided to him and to add in his own personal narrative to those elements to create a new image. Because the elements that comprise the image do not bare complete striking resemblance to the original sourced image, we will not provide a credit for source. We do not shame the collage artist, the mixed media artists, and we must not shame the multi-media artists too.