Just read this smart post over at Jill Walker Rettberg’s blog. As an academic and journalist, I have a slightly different reaction than most scholars seem to have to this type of debate. First, I think it’s worth examining how “The very reproducibility of the photograph means that it will be encountered in many different settings, and not always in serious, museum or documentary style contexts.” This is an issue of rhetorical velocity (Ridolfo & DeVoss), and it suggests that the viewer/reader has an obligation to understand the always-mediated nature of the image.
That makes sense, but I also think expectations surrounding acceptable levels of mediation in particular contexts are not only reasonable, but necessary. For example, when I look at a photograph in a newspaper, I expect that it might have been edited for better reproducibility, but I don’t expect that whole people might have been removed from the image for the sake of aesthetics. As a journalist, I was taught that any manipulation of an image other than limited cropping (to fit available space while working in design and layout) or adjusting the brightness (which is necessary because of darkening that happens in the printing of newspapers) was unacceptable.
Are there reasons for a journalist to alter photographs? I’m willing to entertain the idea. For example, there are things like this, where a photo is filtered for a seemingly ethical or kind reason–in this case, to avoid exposing children to gore. But, really, I can’t get on board here. While the concern that children might see blood and bone is, I think, valid, this is a lazy way to solve the problem. (Editors could have utilized blurring so that the editing was apparent, a jump to an inside page with a warning on the front, a digital-only distribution model, etc.). Worse, it’s a slippery slope from editing out potentially offensive gore to editing out entire people–say, women–because others find their presence intolerable.
This is why the apparency of particular kinds of mediation in particular contexts matters deeply.