Last night one of the people I follow on Twitter – Gus Silber (@gussilber) – posted a link to an opinion article on CNN’s website entitled “Why Instagram photos cheat the viewer”. Of course I was intrigued so I read the piece, which turned out to be a rather whiney rant from a professional news photographer stating that news photographs with instagram or hipstamatic effects applied were unethical and “cheating the viewer”.
Now I have to say that I have personally never seen news photographs using instagram so I can’t comment on how it is done or the impact it has. I’m not 100 per cent convinced instgram’s vintage effects, high contrast or grain are best suited to news photography, but to suggest that it is unethical or misleading is taking it too far. The writer of the piece – Nick Stern – points out that photographers have been fired from newsrooms for photoshopping news photographs, “One added smoke to increase the dramatic appearance of bombing, one cut and pasted a rifle-toting soldier from one image onto another and another removed his own shadow from an image.”
There is a line between news photography and art photography – and photoshopping a soldier from one image into another definitely falls into the second category. So what about instagram effects – news or art? Or somewhere in between perhaps?
My main source of discomfort when I read Stern’s argument is his suggestion that only news photographs – shot by ‘real’ photographer with a very expensive camera – are representations of truth. And I have a real problem with that – no photograph tells an objective truth. Whatever is presented in a photograph is mediated through the photographer’s understanding and interpretation, and the viewer can never know what has been left out of the frame. One might even argue that by appearing very true to life (with no effects, borders etc), the professional news photographs are even more deceptive, because they present themselves as being true. With an instagram photo, on the other hand, there is far less of that pretense.
Those who dismiss instagram and the branch of street/lay-man photography it represents, sound just like those people who bemoan the collapse of the English language. By pronouncing the use of instagram to be cheating, I am sure Stern is echoing many film photographers who felt that the first digital cameras were cheating too.
Photography, just like language, is always in flux, always changing and we cannot label every change as a negative one.