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It’s entertaining sometimes, how naïve people can be when it comes to photography. I think, of all arts, that photography, or at least the (semi-) professional kind, must be one of the most misunderstood.
The masses seem to still tie photography with journalism, which in turn is falsely believed to strive towards unbiased, non-fictional mapping of facts. Without going into the latter too much, I can assure you that in both cases, they are way off.
In one of the theater productions I worked for, I also played photographer. I had just gotten my camera back then, and was learning by leaps and bounds. But of course, professional pictures were needed, so a professional photographer was hired for the job. Several actors ended up telling me they liked my shots better and while I disagreed, I certainly was flattered- Until I asked why that was, and I was told, “Yours are more honest, while his are edited.”
All shots taken, are edited. Analog, digital, professional, amateur: The very act of taking a picture is not a display, but an edit of reality.
It starts with the framing of the shot: A picture stands or falls with its composition. Cut a face in half, and you might as well toss it. A photographer chooses to catch what is interesting, in an interesting way, and everything else is excluded. A supposedly “unedited” analog shot is a distorted, one-minded take on reality.
And don’t think analog is holy. It starts with the choice of negative (you don’t think the world is actually black and white, do you?), and goes on when developing; using filters to alter contrast, burn or dodge certain areas to make them lighter or darker… Compositions of different shots can be made with surprising ease, involving nothing remotely like Photoshop but creating situations that never existed.
Digital photography goes way beyond that, even. Don’t think you don’t edit shots taken with that retarded cell phone camera, either. You don’t really want to know what that plastic little lens really “sees”, you wouldn’t accept it. Heavy sets of software are thrown on the information given through by the sensor, to alter contrast, color saturation, brightness, and reduce butt-ugly “sensor noise”. Digital photography has the editing of shots at its base of existence.
The key factor behind this philosophy is the fact that digital sensors, after all these years, can’t even come close to the quality of analog negatives. Anything at all that could make these pictures compete, would have to be written as software. The main difference between your point-and-shoot camera and my bulky DSLR and complicated software, is that I insist on fixing these things manually, rather than let my camera do all the work.
So a huge part of all this editing is the attempt to compensate for the digital sensor’s shortcomings. But how do you get it back the way it was, in reality? The answer is, you don’t. Only when you have photography as a hobby, do you know just how much our mind alters the things we see. The difference between natural and artificial light, for example, is immense. What you call “white light” is in fact, plain and simply orange, or blue. Even the difference between noon and evening light asks for completely different settings. If you were to reset the settings on your shots, you’d end up with orange or blue rubbish- not even the kind an amateur could live with.
So what is your reference, what do you refer to when changing a picture? Not what your eyes saw, but what your mind remembers seeing. This of course adds another, huge factor: Subjective emotion. If you remember what you saw as fucking epic, you’ll want to change the photo so that it screams “fucking epic”. This often asks for not a reconstruction of the facts, but a subjectively distorted travesty of them.
The so-called “honesty” in photography doesn’t lie in the photographs themselves, but in the photographer. What he needs to be honest about is where the limit is, and what he wants his photograph to portray. Does it need to tell facts? Does it have to show the photographer’s view on them? Is it simply for entertainment purposes? Does it need to sell itself/something else?
The viewer too, should be aware of this choice and adjust his take on the shot accordingly.
We’re all very sorry, but if the purpose of a photograph is to please and sell to the masses, there are no ethical restrictions holding anyone back to push the editing of say, a fashion portrait, into the absurd. As long as we’re clear on that, there is nothing “dishonest” about any shots. Even when sticking to reality as much as possible, the very process of capturing the image is an edit, in itself. Technically speaking, the greatest of all.
“Photography” means “drawing with light”. It is a creative process and those do not exist without the influence of the artist and his tools. So get it straight, once and for all:
All photographs that you see, be it in the newspaper, on billboards, on facebook, or on the screen of your point-and-shoot cammy, are edited- It is just a matter of how much. And when you try to guess just how much, there’s a good chance you’re not even scratching the surface.