Photographic Objectivity: Fact, or Fiction?

Robert Capa: Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death (1936)
Robert Capa: Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death (1936)

It was Robert Capa’s best-known photograph, but also easily his most controversial. 75 years later, the debate continues: was this picture of a Spanish Republican soldier’s last moments the ultimate lucky shot, or was it staged? By 1936, photography had long since left its infancy and entered an exciting maturity, gaining respect both as an artistic and journalistic medium. To what standards would the photographer, as photojournalist, artist, or documentarian be held?

It’s often said the camera never lies. I’ll grant you that the camera, by itself, is the perfect neutral party with no ulterior motives. The issue is that it doesn’t make its own photos; that’s guided by a human being, and all the preferences, knowledge, interests and agendas which that human being brings to bear on his or her photomaking process. So it’s worth asking how realistic it is for photographers to be objective.

Nick Ut / The Associated Press (1972)

It’s worth asking, also, whether true objectivity – a kind of knighted neutrality or impartiality – is even desirable. Some of the best-known “news” images of the twentieth century (Capa’s militiaman, Joe Rosenthal’s depiction of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the photography of Leni Riefenstahl) were posed or staged to make political or propaganda points, so their objectivity was immediately called into question. Other photos, however, were the result of the simple fact that someone cared enough to be there, to compose the shot, set their camera, and decide that this image was important enough that somebody, or several somebodies, needed to see it. Nick Ut’s legendary, harrowing photo depicting the aftermath of the bombing of a Vietnamese village would be one good example, and in more recent times, Thomas E. Franklin’s photo of firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero would be another. You could argue that these images were, in some ways, about more than just the events they captured; countless thousands of images were created over the course of both of those events, but these in particular have lasted precisely because they drew a certain resonance from a photographer’s gut reaction to the scene, rather than his* sense of detachment.

After all, your interest in, or passion about, a subject is likely going to inform whether you decide to approach it at all. If it leaves you cold, it’s probably better left to someone else. If you’re going to present that depiction as an opinion or interpretation, then let the chips fall where they may; the rub is if you’re going to present it as truth, in which case you owe it to your subjects, yourself (as well as your reputation), and your viewers to present your subject in a way that’s as factual as possible. It’s not your responsibility to find the best or worst light in which to portray them; done correctly, context will take care of that for you. Photographers like Jacob Riis, and photomonteurs like John Heartfield practiced their art as activism, but it was in a context that let their viewers know the score (Riis generally published in the muckraking papers of the day, and Heartfield published in the Socialist magazine AIZ, so there wasn’t much pretense of objectivity, nor was any needed).

Flag Raising at Ground Zero (Thomas E. Franklin/The Record/Associated Press)

All of this might seem a bit removed from the concerns of the average photographer, especially those of us who don’t do it for a living. But the issue, and the questions that surround it, are worth raising and giving some serious thought. The camera, with its cold gaze, may not have an agenda in mind; however, the photographer, once the image has left the sensor or the film, can impose any conditions he or she sees fit through a multitude of compositional methods and post processing tools. If your photos of something are either the only record, or one of the more visible records, that carries with it a certain responsibility. Time Magazine learned this the hard way after its infamously retouched O.J. Simpson cover.

In summary, I think that whether or not you “need” to be objective depends a lot on the photo and where/how it’s going to be used. The responsibilities of a photojournalist are necessarily different than those of an artist, a street photographer, or portraitist. The expectations for a photographer shooting for National Geographic** versus those for someone shooting for, say, Playboy (you didn’t think the women really looked like that, did you?), are going to be very different things. It’s one thing to airbrush a zit off the groom’s forehead, but it’s something else altogether to airbrush the thugs and corpses out of the photo of a dictator.

Carl Bernstein, who famously broke the Watergate story in collaboration with Bob Woodward, said that objectivity was “getting the best obtainable version of the truth.” Just as no written article can possibly cover every facet of even the simplest story, no photograph, no matter how talented the photographer, could tell the entire story on its own (nor, I would argue, should it attempt to). You do the best you can with what you’ve got, or can get, but you also have a responsibility, no matter what your niche, to do so with integrity.

*Before someone takes me to task over my choice of gender pronoun (after all, some people live for that kind of thing), I’ll remind you that both photographers being referred to are men.

**Speaking of National Geographic, the magazine touched off quite the firestorm when it became known that one of its covers had taken a bit of artistic license, so this isn’t a strictly academic point.

A postscript, and a note: The Nick Ut and Robert Capa photos came from an essay in the UK’s Telegraph, “Ten Photographs that Changed the World.” Those images, and the others used here, are not property of The First 10,000, but are posted under Fair Use.

The First 10,000 runs on passion (and an awful lot of caffeine). Buy me a coffee.