The meaning of altered

Altering, changing, manipulating…. all words that have a negative connotation in photojournalism/documentary photography. Images made in this genre are supposed to present a scene as it appeared with no direct intervention on the part of the photographer. It violates ethical standards to change a scene and then pass it off as the reality the photographer saw. At least it does in US media systems in our current times.

The topic comes up in relation to a current exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York. Altered Images” presents “150 years of posed and manipulated documentary photography.” The exhibit “explores disputed images in photojournalism and documentary photography–photos that have been faked, posed, or manipulated.” The description goes on to say photographers and editors have misled the public while others have made mistakes in judgment. It also notes that government regimes have used photographs as propaganda. Examples of all these are presented in the exhibit.

The question, though, is what constitutes “altered?” Or maybe it’s what defines documentary photography?

Some of the examples in the exhibition are clearly manipulated outside the ethical limitations of photojournalism/documentary photography of the time. Recent examples of PhotoShop cloning of smoke after the shelling of Beirut, removing a video camera from a photograph of a Syrian opposition fighter or combining frames of a soldier and civilians in Iraq are well-known examples of current violations, and photographers faced consequences for their actions.

Less well known are some mid-20th century photographs by W. Eugene Smith, who it seems combined negatives or employed darkroom and post-printing techniques to change the direction of a subject’s gaze in an image. Again, these would not have been approved under ethical standards of photojournalism and documentary photography at the time. They clearly represent altering an image. Other photographs in the exhibit have been topics of questions for years, such as Robert Capa’s “Death of a Spanish Loyalist” photograph.

But what about photographs made in the first half century of photography, for instance, when the concepts of “documentary” photography meant something different? Were those photographers trying to create an untouched scene just the way they found it, or were they trying to communicate an idea? The Altered Images exhibit includes Roger Fenton’s photographs of a Crimean War battlefield. In one image cannonball line a ditch on the side of the road, while in another the cannonballs are strewn across the road. Evidence suggests Fenton moved the cannonballs from the ditch onto the road to make the second photograph. So yes, in that sense the scene is altered/manipulated, but was that the standard Fenton would be held to?


Roger Fenton Crimean War photograph from Library of Congress


Additional photographs of the American Civil War show that bodies were moved from one location to another and, in some cases, models who were very much alive were used to simulate corpses in an image. Clearly the scenes have been set up, but what do we make of that?

Historians consider the context in which a photograph was made. Not just the conditions of making the photograph but also the environment and culture of photography at the time as well as the intent of the photographer. Can we call these “disputed” images, or do we call them examples of different stages of photojournalism and how the practice has evolved. I’m not taking issue with the Bronx Documentary Center or the idea of the exhibit. It’s clear in some cases that photographers, editors and/or technicians overstepped the bounds, but it’s also necessary to consider intent and standards when the image was made and distributed to determine what that alteration means.