Truth in Photography

Lou Lesko

Let’s say you’re a photojournalist in a war zone. You come upon a bombed out home with a charred teddy bear in front of it. To visually tell the story well, you have to move the stuffed animal so it's situated in the foreground of your shot. But, if you do, you’ve altered the scene. Does your photograph lose its journalistic integrity as a result of your tampering? I don’t think it does. Moving the teddy bear doesn’t change the story, it allows it to be told.

Photographic storytelling is intentional. It is a confluence of practical and aesthetic choices which are used to convey a narrative, contrived or factual, from the perspective of the photographer. Using filters and other visual enhancements don’t inhibit the story, it allows it to be seen.

Well known photographer of eclectic events, Philip Pavliger, photographed a World War I trench warfare recreation. The original image looks like a young man in a World War I uniform on a set in California in the present day. That is the true scene. However, after the image goes through Pavliger’s post production process, the image has the effect of taking the viewer back in time. The difference between the original and finished image is striking.

Photo: Philip Pavliger
Photo: Philip Pavliger

In 2010 photojournalist Damon Winter photographed the day-to-day lives of soldiers on a combat mission in Afghanistan. He used an iPhone and applied a filter to the images using an app. His intention was to convey a lighter mood to the assignment. Winter spent a lot of time with the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division in northern Afghanistan and his photos give an authentic glimpse into the often tedious life of a soldier’s mission. Unfortunately, Winter’s images were maligned by many because he used an iPhone and an app instead of a camera.

However, Winter’s choices were intentional. He used his iPhone to blend in with the troops–who were also using their phones to take snaps–to get more intimate and less alienated photographs. Winter chose a filter, which adds an atmosphere that’s less grim than previously depicted war zones. This was on purpose. Winter said, “For us, it sometimes resembled a summer camp with guns more than a military operation.” That comes across exceedingly well in the photo essay.

Ironically, despite the recriminations by the purists, Winter’s photo series, entitled A Grunt’s Life, won an international award the year it was published.

Photo: Damon Winter

As soon as you pick up a camera and point it at a scene, you’re manipulating the truth in front of you. Your biases and your life experiences influence how you see, and your intentions for the pictures affect how you shoot. Photographs that evoke a visceral response do so in part because of the composition and lighting choices made by the photographer. It’s how good visual stories are conveyed.

We are all storytellers at heart. It is part of the human DNA. But telling a story is never a regurgitation of facts, it is the shaping of a narrative that captivates your audience of one or one million.