National Geographic : 2013 Oct
160 national geographic • october 2013 New York can be uploaded and within seconds get a response from someone in Lagos. With so many photographs on the Web every day, no one image gets to be special for long. Dec- ades after the Vietnam War, Nick Ut’s photo of nine-year-old Kim Phuc, burning from napalm and running naked down a road, is still vivid in our imaginations. Eddie Adams’s image of a South Vietnamese general executing a Vietcong infiltrator changed the way the public saw the war and arguably affected the course of history. But if there are fewer memorable images today, The slope gets slipperier still when even photo- journalists start experimenting with camera apps like Hipstamatic or Instagram, which encour- age the use of filters. Images can be saturated, brightened, faded, and scratched to create artful, hyper-real, and simulated-vintage photographs. Photographers using camera apps to cover wars and conflicts have created powerful images—but also controversy. Some worry that faux-vintage photographs romanticize war. With their nostal- gic allusion to past wars, they risk distancing us from those who fight today’s wars. Such images may be more useful in conveying how the per- son behind the camera felt than in documenting what was actually in front of the camera. Yet photography has always been more sub- jective than we assume, each picture a result of a series of decisions—where to stand, what lens to use, what to leave in and what to leave out of the frame. Does manipulating photographs with camera app filters make them less true? Google Street View, whose cameras take images all over the world, is now used by art photographers who sit at their computers and curate eye-catching frames to claim as their own. With surveillance cameras blanketing urban centers, have we pro- gressed to the point where cameras don’t need photographers and photographers don’t even need cameras? There’s something powerful and exciting about the society-wide experiment the digital age has thrust upon us. These new tools make it easier to tell our own stories—and they empower others to do the same. Many members of the media get stuck on the same narratives, focusing on elec- tions, legislatures, wars, famines, and disasters, and in the process miss out on the less dramatic images of daily life that can be as revealing. The democratization of photography might even be good for democracy itself. Hundreds of millions of potential citizen journalists make the world smaller and help hold leaders accountable. From Tehran to Taksim Square, people can now page 156, counterclockwise From upper right: nichole sobecki; holly pickett, redux; laura el-tantawy, Vii photo mentor program; charlie shoemaker; shannon jensen; laura el-tantawy, Vii photo mentor program; holly pickett, redux; glenna gordon; charlie shoemaker; jane hahn; peter dicampo; charlie shoemaker. page 157, counterclockwise From upper right: glenna gordon; charlie shoemaker (two); glenna gordon; austin merrill; glenna gordon There’s something exciting about the society-wide experiment the digital age has thrust upon us. it’s not because there are fewer good images. It’s because there are so many. The ubiquity of cameras is transforming the way we experience dramatic events. Surveil- lance cameras are everywhere, providing police with clues to crimes like the Boston Marathon bombing. When there are demonstrations in Tahrir Square or a tornado tears through a town in Oklahoma, it is ordinary citizens with cell phones, not photojournalists, who often provide the first news images. Quality still matters, but it’s less important than what’s relevant and in- stantly shared. As the masses embrace photography and news outlets enlist citizen journalists, professional standards appear to be shifting. Before digital images most people considered photographs to be accurate renderings of reality. Today images can be altered in ways undetectable to the naked eye. Photojournalists are trained to accurately represent what they witness. Yet any image can be doctored to create an “improved” picture of reality. The average viewer is left with no way to assess the veracity of an image except through trust in a news organization or photographer.