Picture Perfect

Recently I had a week’s holiday. As with most of the nation, this has become a rather trying experience of staying close to home and making the best of it – no great hardship, but not my destination of choice for a week in January. I decided to look round the web for a course to improve my photography and was delighted to find one on the RPS website led by Robert Harvey.

During the course some of the conversation turned to the boundaries and ethics of contemporary photography. I quickly learned that what some people do is beyond the pale; while quite significant editing and alteration has become an accepted part of the digital world. I imagine that these boundaries are shifting constantly as technology evolves and more and more becomes possible. However, it raised the question for me as to what may or may not be a good idea when it comes to editing.

There are elements of this which touch on research I’ve undertaken in the past. When it comes to the written description of experiences we can’t include everything. Much is omitted and some aspects of a situation become foregrounded and significant. A while ago I began using ‘constructed case studies’. This involved combining real and authentic events presented as an additional, fabricated, case. In part I did this to protect the privacy of those involved. However, there was also something leading me to think that a fiction drawing on fact can sometimes communicate the truth better than the limitations of a single incident. A possible parallel to ‘stacking’ in photography, where many shots are edited in order to enhance the clarity and quality of the final product. This can be achieved because multiple shots of the same subject are taken from the same place with the focus on different items in the frame – resulting in more depth of field. Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect but it suggest that sometimes we need to be creative in order to be accurate. It’s impossible to focus on everything involved in one pastoral encounter.

There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth

Lessing, D. M. B. (1994). Under my skin: volume one of my autobiography, to 1949.

Often I edit a photo because it doesn’t appear to reflect my naked eye observation of what I snapped. By changing a multitude of variables, the picture starts to look more like what (I believe) I saw. However, I can’t say that’s always the case and this morning I removed an inconveniently blurry pigeon from a photo of York Minster’s central tower! We can make images more representative of our perceived reality – or make them ideal, flawless and desirable. The latter is a significant issue for portraits when the gap is widened between a real appearance and one altered to an impossible standard of unblemished beauty. There is plenty of concern about the impact of impossibly perfect pictures on people using social media.

I write this at the start of the week when Lent begins. That may seem an unlikely segue, but I think there is a very natural link. On Ash Wednesday it is the tradition in many churches to place ashes on someone’s forehead. This isn’t a glamorous activity, and it is accompanied by words that assert the basic fact of our humanity: “Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return”. Nothing is done to disguise this fact, although the life and promise of faith is offered at the same time: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”. Our reality is named, but we are not left without hope. In a year when we have been reminded more than ever of our human vulnerability, this ashing and calling seems to have greater relevance than over. A moment perhaps to hold two images in mind; the dust that falls between our fingers, and a glory no software can ever come near.

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