I was surfing the net earlier today and I ran across this little firestorm of an argument. Now, being a writer, I can fully understand the outrage this photographer feels at having his work manipulated and taken out of context by an editor. I’ve been there, more times than I can recall. One particular instance, I wrote a piece on a local coffeehouse presenting musicians, poets, comedians, etc for some community oriented entertainment. During a portion of my article, which was equating community-based efforts like this one with a broader concept of ecology, I referenced a joke told by one of the performers. When I read the article as it appeared in print, I was horrified to discover that the editor in question cut out the punchline of the joke, obviously done awarely as the period and quotation marks were left at the end of the cut. He also cut out the last two sentences of the piece, which tied together the entire theme of ecology and community I had set up throughout.
Now I understood that the edits were likely done for space constraints, but that didn’t change the fact that removing these portions altered the overall impression of the piece, not to mention making me look like a lousy writer, and it did nothing to tone down my outrage. I swore I would never again give that editor any of my work to butcher. And I haven’t. That being said, I was paid for the piece with the understanding that final approval of what ran in the paper was out of my control. I agreed to their terms and I had to deal with it. What I didn’t have to do was agree to it in the future.
So I can relate to this photographer’s anger. But from an editor’s point of view, I can also relate to why Newsweek made the choice they did. It’s not a very good choice, mind you, but I can see why it would have happened. They had a point of view they were trying to represent, “Is Dick Cheney a Butcher?”, and most likely, someone ran across this photo of Cheney cutting a very rare steak at a dinner for his daughter and thought, “Cheney a butcher, Cheney cutting raw meat, we have a winner.” To me, it’s not a good representation of the point they were going for. A closeup photo of Cheney sitting at a desk scowling probably would have been more effective, but they paid for the use of the image and they get to make the call. This is more a matter of an editor trying to be too clever rather than pissing all over someone else’s work, as the photographer seems to think. And if he doesn’t like the way they treated his work, don’t sell to them anymore.
The more disturbing point, to me, is the photographer’s rant against photo cropping. It seems a lot like the angry tirades I hear from long-time journalists about the amateur online brethren who are helping to make the mainstream media obsolete. Technology, whether we like it or not, changes everything. I’m constantly worried that actual paying work for writers may be a thing of the past before much longer, but photographers are actually in a much worse position.
A few years ago, I made a comment in jest to a good friend of mine who happens to be a professional photographer, and a pretty good one, that any idiot with a digital camera and a copy of Photoshop can be a photographer. He responded in outrage, defending the merits of his chosen field, even though I was, mostly, joking. Today, however, we are likely no more than a few generations of camera technology away from the entire concept of professional photographers, particularly highly paid ones, being obsolete themselves. While you can’t replace the trained eye of a truly exceptional photographer, much higher resolution images and a plethora of high-end photo manipulation tools can create a pretty good approximation from just about anyone’s point and shoot work. This has to be disturbing to photographers, but it’s also reality.
If photographers, like writers, are going to have any place in the future, they have to embrace change, and find ways to use the new tools at their disposal to expand the concept of what it means to be a photographer, not rail against them in favor of the way it used to be. Photo cropping isn’t just a lazy choice anymore, it’s a tool, when used wisely, to improve the overall presentation of whatever you’re working on. I don’t pretend to be a professional photographer, even though photography skills have been a big part of the work I’ve done over the past dozen years. Cropping and other means of photo manipulation are a necessary component in publishing today. It makes no sense to spout off about your old photography professor who taught you twenty years ago that cropping was a lazy way to work. Using software to design pages for press is a lazy way to work, too, when compared with the old typesetting and cut-and-paste efforts of the past. But it’s also opened the door to a vast array of design possibilities that were unthinkable back when you had to cut out the photos you wanted to use and glue them to a board with hot wax.
Technology can’t be stopped. We will never go back to the way it used to be, and we shouldn’t. If you don’t like the choices your editor made with your work, you have the option of not working with him or her anymore. That’s the only place where true control as creative people really lies, making the decisions about who we trust, and who we don’t, with our work.