When a work represents “reality” do you think it is ethical to alter an image to change its meaning from the work’s original context?
I think the first thing I should address here is the preconceived notion that photographs represent “reality” and are objective, unbiased records of events exactly as they transpired.
Anyone here heard of Susan Sontag’s On Photography or Regarding the Pain of Others? Sontag sums up our collective attitude towards photos wonderfully in her essays:
A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture. Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a photograph — any photograph — seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects. (Sontag, link here)
But a photograph is actually just as biased as anything else. Christiane Paul describes a few ways that photographs aren’t exactly impartial: “The subjectivity of the photographer–for example, in the choice of ange, placement, and lighting–is obviously inscribed into any photographic record. And the ‘staging’ and the manipulation of photographs are as old as the history of photography itself” (Paul 36).
Rather than stick the “unethical” label to altered photographs, I believe that we need to recognize that all photographs are subjective, and that the altering of photographs is not going away. We seem to be recognizing this as programs like Photoshop become more widespread and the internet exposes us to more digitally altered pictures than ever before.
In relation to Ken-Gonzales-Day’s work, the altered image plays a different role. We as an audience are not supposed to believe that the artist is actually part of the photo–in works like Untitled #36, the digital manipulation is obvious. The piece feels more like a statement of the artist’s identity than an attempt to bring the audience into a hyperreality.
Paul, Christiane. Digital Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008. Print.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 2005. Print.