Monday, March 28, 2011

Laden head, Bush body

 Digital technology has revolu­tionised virtually all faculties of human interac­tion. It has also come as a blessing to the print media, which, without the digital rev­olution, would not have been able to neutralise television's advantage of speed. Digital photography, satellite phones, PDAs, and the Photoshop software have changed the ways of journal­ism, and have stretched the limit of artificial intelligence, human imagination and cre­ativity. This has obviously precipitated new experiences such as newscast by a virtual newsreader, Ananova, and the innovative multimedia messaging service capable of sending pictures through mobile phones.
But the digital revolution's tryst with photography, while opening up novel ways of seeing and believing, has raised ethical questions as well. Brushing up and manipulation of images through programmes like Adobe Photoshop, have become all too common in photo-journalism. Digital manipulation or digitisation involves effecting changes in images using the computer. It has become a 'creative' affair, almost similar to dig­ital art, as the new medium has proven to be more expressive than collages and powerful than pho­tomontage. (Photomontage is the simultaneous presentation of a num­ber of images in the form of a com­plete picture, either by cutting and pasting, in the camera itself, or on the enlarger. Images would overlap each other, merge into one another or occur "in separate conjunction.) Thus the “lasso”, the "magic wand” and the "marquee" tools of Photoshop, have replaced the blade used in earlier times to make new photomontages. Photoshop also renders ideas through images giving the artists immense possibilities to experiment and explore.
All the magazines, particularly the newsy ones, have now turned to digitized covers. The latest issue of a Malayalam weekly, Kerala Sabdam, shows a digitized image depicting police atrocities in Kerala. Other major Malayalam newsmags such as Kalakaumudi and Samskarika Keralam also have resorted to digitized covers inorder to caricature political dramas. But the pertinent question here is about the extent and admissibility of digital manipulation and the ethical aspects involved. Time magazine’scover picture of OJ Simpson and a National Geographic cover showing two pyramids squeezed into a camera frame were examples of digitised images, which triggered moral and ethical questions and cast doubts on authenticity. Most of the western newspapers and magazines digitize cover pictures to deal with whom they see as villains. The American magazine’s depiction of Osama bin-Laden after the September 11 attack serves as a good example in this regard.
But manipulation of photographs for political reasons is not a discovery of the digital times. During Stalin’s regime there was a common practice of brushing people out of the photographs when they became dissidents. So when somebody fell out of favour with Stalin, suddenly they would disappear from photographs of the Communist Party leadership, only to reappear after their relations with Stalin were mended.
An analysis shows that most of the Malayalam magazines are better at the digital game than their English counterparts. The ‘Malayalam pictures’ mostly deal with political humour-they could be collages, politically significant photomontages, or pure digital art, which do not make any moral or ethical transgressions. In this regard the Madhyamam weekly definitely deserves praise for the creative use of the technique.
But the cardinal principle is that while digitization has got a creative flair to it, and is a handy mechanism in describing, documenting and corroborating historical events, it should not mar or erode the credibility of the photograph, or the profession of photojournalism itself. What we want now are clear guidelines in this respect which most of the western nations already have.

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