I've been writing an annual "April Fools'" post for some years now. But this year, I want to broaden the topic a bit.
For those who are not long time readers here at Earthbound Light, the topics for my past April Fools' posts have varied, but all relied on starting from an extremely tenuous grain of truth, progressing to arrive at a "logical" but utterly preposterous conclusion (although not everyone realizes that). One past April Fools' story claimed that Adobe was planning to rename Photoshop as "ImageReady." This would then let reuse the name to rename Lightroom as Photoshop. This makes some sense since Lightroom is mainly used by photographer, and Photoshop is often used to do final edits to make images ready. Or that Adobe would offer a free, but ad-supported version of Photoshop. Another announced that Kodak was developing a new camera leveraging secret research from Area 51 UFO research. Or that Apple was planning to release a new iPad (RED) model that looked suspiciously like an old-fashioned red-bordered Etch-a-Sketch. You get the idea. It was fun, even if a few people got confused and freaked out a bit. After all, that's all part of the plan for April Fool's pranks.
But without a doubt, the most "successful" April Fools' article was the story from 2009 about the forthcoming Nikon D4.1 DSLR that would make use of a revolutionary 1-bit sensor. Fully realized images were recorded by moving the lens around in front of that single pixel "very, very quickly." The primary "sources" for the story were me (I quote myself in the article) and Nikon spokesperson April Bangusetsu (her last name being the Japanese term for April Fools' Day). This rumor reverberated around the internet for months. At least I thought it was funny. I still do when I reread it.
Recent political developments though have caused "fake news" to be in the headlines often. April Fools' just doesn't seem so funny this year. Lately, "fake news" seems to be a common claim, even if the meaning behind the term isn't always consistent. Sometimes, it refers to made up stories intentionally designed to deceive. Whereas April Fools' fake news is intended as somewhere between a Trick or Treat and a joke. This new type of fake news though isn't good natured fun. It has an agenda, and is more akin to propaganda than a joke. Other times, a label of "fake news" is used simply to refer to news that someone disagrees with, news they would rather not hear, and rather others not take seriously either. This type of fake news isn't necessarily fake at all. It not only isn't good natured, it serves to denigrate and attempt to slander the source of that news by calling it "fake."
Fake news in recent headlines of both types has a detrimental impact on civil discourse and everyday communication. April Fools' jokes are in an entirely different category, but they nonetheless seem somewhat in bad taste right now. Just a bit too close for comfort. And so, I am regretfully foregoing my annual tradition this year. I have some great ideas for April Fools' stories, mind you, but they'll need to wait for another time.
Yet all this fake news stuff has caused me to ponder another related topic – the very nature of photography itself as a means of communication. Just like news in general, photography relies on a trust between writer (or photographer) and reader (or viewer) to tell its tale.
Historically, photography has served as a standard of proof, recording a moment in time for reference at future points in time, and often by those other than the photographer who shot the image. A photograph of something was evidence of that something. In legal parlance, this is termed forensic photography. In the media, good editorial photography serves a similar function. Editorial photography though can also exist not to honestly document, but to advance a position or serve an agenda. Agenda journalism borders all too uncomfortably close to fake news. And thus, photography could be "fake" in the same sense as some recent news headlines.
And today, photography isn't even bounded by what exists in real life. Digital image editing techniques can alter a photograph to convey something other than what a natural rendering would. Images can be modified to remove elements, or add objects painted out of whole cloth, pixel by pixel, brush stroke by brush stroke, selected, masked, layered and filtered. There exist actual contests for digital artists to render works of art that mimic photographs with uncanny realism. Winning images can be quite convincing. There's a saying I first heard years ago, that if you get good enough at Photoshop, you won't even need a camera. With each passing year, this grows increasingly true. Movie special effects tell the tale for the general public. Images, both still and moving pictures, can be altered, augmented, or constructed to appear as most anything.
I'm not saying that these advances in digital editing are a problem though. They're simply a fact of modern life. The value and usefulness of photography depends on the intent of the photographer. And that means all of us who enjoy this craft, not just those who make their living from it.
Honesty in photography right now isn't as much of a topical issue as honesty in news journalism has become, but there's nothing that says that this will always remain the case. Both depend on the unwritten conventions of civil discourse within which we all interact. The unwritten but implicitly accepted "contract" between media creator and media consumer. When that contract break down, we end up in the current "fake news" situation where sources can't always be taken entirely at face value and everything must be questioned.
What do you want to do with your photography? How far will you go in digitally tweaking the results? These are questions that each of us need to consider and be comfortable with how we answer them. We may not need to answer to anyone else either, but we all need to answer to ourselves.