Musing on Borders : When does a photo stop being a photo? Or a story being a story?


As you maybe have picked up, I am quite a serious photographer at times and have work exhibited in art galleries and various locations. What I have noticed is that with more photographers being adept at using Photoshop and other editing software, there’s a point reached where I wonder if a photograph is still a photograph. Handled well, PS and other tools can definitely improve (or at least change) an image – sharpen the edges, increase the contrast, etc., and I am a fan of Photoshop as well. I’m not that much of a Luddite with regard to photographic work, so I was wondering…

At what point does a photo stop being a photo and start being something else – a digitally altered medium, perhaps? There are lots of good (and even great) photographers out there and so I’m curious – in exhibitions and competitive events, should altered and non-altered photographs be judged in the same category? And if not, how does one decide when one becomes the other? Is it something that can be measured or should it be up to the judge or juror’s own discretion? Is it a question of degree and who should decide that? Is the point of a photographic exhibition to judge the camera skills (composition etc.) or to judge the Photoshop skills?

And then, on the flip side, how should the photographers making the edits measure their changes if they had to? Should it be the honor system for artists? (And what to do with artists who don’t follow the rules?) If there were two categories: “Altered Art” and “Unaltered Art” — how much “altering” does it take to cross from one class to the next? Does increasing exposure push your photograph into the same category of a photo that has been altered so much that it looks like media of another kind (not a photo any more)?

If you want to relate it to the literary world, a similar question could be raised for narrative non-fiction/creative non-fiction and straight non-fiction. There’s straight non-fiction where authors report the facts with little extra added and few assumptions made, and then there is the narrative (or creative) non-fiction where perhaps a story is based on an event and the author takes liberties and makes assumptions about what the characters were thinking or feeling even if there is no measure to support that.

So – at what point does a piece of creative non-fiction become fiction? As with the photography, how should this be measured (if it can be measured), who should decide the scale and then who should follow it? Should publishing houses decide the scale or the authors? Should there be a scale in the first place (or continuum) used by academia to determine when a book has crossed the line and how would the standard be held in place? Honor system?

For me, if I choose to read non-fiction, I will expect a strong factually-based document of some kind. I get irked when I am reading what’s supposed to be “non-fiction” and the author starts leaping around making assumptions about how characters “must have felt” when this event happened or after hearing that particular news. “It must have seemed devastating and they would have gone to the neighbor’s house…” Why say that if you’re not sure if it’s true and if you’re categorizing your document as NF? Again, it’s that question of degree.

I don’t know that there is an answer to this, and it might be one of those things that gets sorted out in five years or so when things are not quite so new and fuzzy. I’ll be interested to see what (if anything) happens.

What do you think? When does a photo stop being a photo with regards to digital altering? What pushes a book from non-fiction to fiction (or vice versa)? Can this even be measured in the first place? Should we?


5 thoughts on “Musing on Borders : When does a photo stop being a photo? Or a story being a story?

  1. I appreciate you musing about this question publicly because it’s been one I’ve sometimes pondered, too.

    At the risk of oversimplifying the matter, I think the foundation of the question concerns a certain tension between ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’. As such, when I’m looking at an image that the creator calls a photograph, I ask myself this pair of distinguishing questions:

    Does the place depicted in this image actually exist ‘out there’ in the real world? And, if it does, how likely would I be to see this scene (allowing, of course, for some uncontrollable variables such as light, cloud cover in the sky, presence of transient elements such as people, wildlife, etc.)?

    If the creator’s answer is more toward the ‘yes’ end of the truth-beauty spectrum, and that I’d see this scene *mostly* as it’s depicted in the image being considered’ (except, of course, for the uncontrollable variables), then I think it’s appropriate to call that image a ‘photograph’ in the essential spirit of photography.

    If the answer is more toward the ‘no’ end of that truth-beauty spectrum because some items have been [a] added and/or [b] removed (for aesthetic preferences), or [c] digitally manipulated (contrast, brightness, hue, etc.) in such a way that the result looks less like the actual item as-it-is rather than more like it, then I think using the term ‘photograph’ to characterize the image is misguided at best; dishonest at worst.

    Not to be clear, I’m not ‘judging’ people who heavily manipulate their images for the sake of falling heavily on the ‘beauty’ side of that truth-beauty spectrum. I think artistic freedom allows us to DO whatever we wish to do with images that belong to us. It’s not whether anyone has the ‘right’ to do what they will, but it is about what they call the resulting image. To me, ‘photograph’ necessarily implies a strong correlation to some actual person, place, or thing as-it-is in real life. To the degree that this is-ness becomes less similar to real life, is the degree to which I think ‘photograph’ is less appropriate a label for the resulting image.

    • I agree with your idea of the truth-beauty spectrum and how close to either end the piece of artwork is. So – how would you handle this in an exhibition of “photography” when some pics are very close to the “no” end of that truth-beauty measure?

      • If I had an easy answer to the question of how to handle exhibitions, I might be quite popular and wealthy by now 🙂

        Such things, ideally (it seems to me), ought to be matters of integrity so that no oversight is necessary. The reason for such oversight, then, is a matter of personal concern rather than technical.

        That said, if I agree to step out from my idealistic world view and into the real world, one way to help make such determinations might be to request the unedited file for comparison by the judges only. This becomes problematic only because many cameras today have in-camera processing that can take substantial liberties with the what-isness and embed those liberties within the original raw photo.

        Another possibility might be to reject the notion of ‘photography exhibit’ altogether, where there’s neither a formal rule/requirement nor an expectation that anything submitted has roots in reality.

        Then again, if the original raw photo is clearly unsensational in itself, then perhaps that unsensational raw image might suggest a documentarian-focused exhibit that dared to include the side-by-side raw/processed image so that the people attending might get a sense of how ‘real world’ is the image they’re viewing.

        None of these possibilities are fool-proof, and there are doubtless others that might be suggested, but those are a few thoughts I’ve had while pondering the matter recently.

        What about you? Have you any additional ideas about how to handle such matters?

        Oh, and thanks very much for your engaging reply! 🙂

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