Imagine if this essay were written using quotes from movies, famous authors, philosophers, song lyrics, and so on. Imagine that all these things were used, but not given credit. What if I wrote this entire essay quoting Adam Sandler as Billy Madison meets Radiohead’s “House of Cards” meets Judith Butler, but never once named them? Surely these words would not get past an editor. Surely readers would notice. Maybe one person would pick up on Radiohead but not Butler, and another would pick up on Butler and Billy Madison but not Radiohead. No matter the combination, it would not go unnoticed.
We are taught at a young age to site sources, that failing to do so is plagiarizing, lying, claiming ownership over the thoughts and ideas and words and creation of another. We are taught to give credit where credit is due. And not doing so can lead to serious consequences, whether it be failing a class or expulsion or even loss of a job (think of Shattered Glass, the story of The New Republic’s star journalist, Stephen Glass, who was found to have made up the stories he wrote).
So, what if instead of a collage of words, you were presented with a collage of images? What if you were given one single image to publish in a newspaper or magazine or online and were told by the photographer that the image is made up of several found pieces? How would you react? Would it make a difference if the images were from advertisements as opposed to say, an Ansel Adams? As the world becomes increasingly digital, lines blur between reality and fantasy. Maybe fantasy isn’t the right word, maybe let’s just say Photoshop.
So here’s what happened, a story ran in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about exercising at home and home gyms. Along with that article was a picture of a home gym in a laundry room. Standard. Nothing special, just depicting a busy space being utilized for multiple purposes. What is the issue, then, you ask? The issue is that the photographer, referred to here as M, who submitted the image did not pull it from stock photos or take it himself. The image was pieced together using objects and pieces from existing images created by other people. He took what was already out there and made something totally new, without crediting a single person.
And what of it? You ask. Yes, what of it? Maybe those images M accessed were themselves collages. Maybe each of those ten artists he did not name created new things out of old things. Imagine, crediting himself, plus ten! That would be hilarious. Ridiculous.
Maybe Edgar Martins has a point when he says, “In the pulsating world of binary number systems that we live in, history is made, negated and reinvented, all in the space of one minute.” Maybe Martins is onto something: “Modern media no longer just report events and communicate ideas.” The media is open to interpretation and varied communication. What does it matter that this image was pieced together using existing images from multiple places? The media, as Martins argues, does not operate linearly, rather on a frequency outside the normal realm of storytelling. It has shifted to a sort of art. But maybe Martins has allowed his arrogance to get the better of him and is only being so bold after the fact of questioning.
There is the argument that M was simply doing what so many people do. The digital world has changed the way images are produced. As Mara Kurtz notes, “the very word photograph has been excised from contemporary vocabulary and replaced by the term image.” So what was submitted was already known to be an image created by the artist. There was then, no actual expectation of a photograph taken on site somewhere. Perhaps my argument above, that there is issue with the fact that the artist did not take the photograph themselves, is moot. Then again, he could have done so with a digital camera. Film that is developed in a dark room was not necessarily the expectation. There was, however, an expectation for originality. M could have easily taken a digital image. So there it is, not a photograph, but an image. But as Kurtz points out, what separates digital images even further is that without a negative “there is no proof…to demonstrate ownership of an image… therefore, digital images are no longer originals in any sense.”.
Kurtz goes on to say that photographs have never been original to begin with, that “photographic images have always represented the personal vision of a photographer who selects a single moment.” Kurtz points out that alterations to photographs could happen in the dark room even. And the very nature of taking a photograph is to capture a specific moment or image that the photographer wants. So, if this artist has submitted an image he had taken himself he could have easily moved things around in the physical space to get exactly what he wanted, where he wanted, in the frame. How is that really any different from making a visual collage? M simply created a frame and filled it with existing images.
Of course, some news agencies do not want anything but original work. Reuters, for example, “ ‘has a strict policy against modifying, removing, adding to or altering any of its photographs without first obtaining the permission of Reuters and, where necessary, the third parties referred to,’.” You begin to read that sentence and think yes, there is something ethically wrong with alterations, it’s like altering the story, but then the sentence takes a turn. Does that mean that Reuters is the final decider in what is real? Surely an established organization like Reuters, with a reputation to uphold, wouldn’t let just any change happen. Reuters would not allow for something to be falsely printed, but would maybe allow for some alterations that better convey whatever the story is. And so, again, what harm is there in M’s actions? It’s not as if M photoshopped an image that defames someone. M simply provided the magazine with an image that supported its story. And if it’s good enough for an organization like Reuters, it should be good enough for the viewers, right?
But then there is still that question, rather idea, that images and photographs represent truth and reality. Hans Durrer states that: “Documentary photography and press photography are based on the implicit promise that whatever the photo shows is real and is true and has not been (essentially) tampered with.” Along those same lines, A.O. Scott, in the article On (Digital) Photography – Sontag, 34 Years Later, says, “The camera may record astounding events or reveal shocking truths, but always within the context of the ordinary, the literal, the real.” There is an understanding, unspoken or otherwise, that seeing is believing. Given these statements, Reuters and the New York Times and all other news organizations should be promising viewers what they expect: the truth. An altered image that is considered okay to print can easily lead to an altered story being okay to print. But Durrer, immediately before this statement, notes that, “What we want from photographs is one thing, what they can deliver however quite another.”
And Scott goes on to discuss Sontag’s reaction to the ever changing world of photography:
“Sontag…warned that our consciousnesses, individual and collective, were in danger of being overwhelmed, our aesthetic and ethical senses dulled and muddled, by an ever-intensifying blizzard of mechanically produced pictures. How would we be able to sort through them all, to decode their messages and judge their merits? How would we know what was real? ‘We consume images at an ever faster rate,’ Sontag observed, and the more we do, the more ‘images consume reality’.”
Perhaps the ultimate answer is that there needs to be some level of understanding from viewers and consumers. There needs to be the knowledge that seeing is not believing. Or that what you are seeing is a sometimes altered, sometimes stitched together believing.
*This is a midterm essay for Mara Kurtz’s Post Photography course