Project 5, The Manipulated Image, exercise – The Real and the Digital – Liz Wells


The question as to what is ‘real’ has long been attached to photography. There have been assumptions attached to film photography by those who had no dark room experience that the photograph was a document. And even that photographers wouldn’t be so ‘manipulative’ as to selectively compose or crop in camera to put a slant on a story.

Now we have digital technology, including digital photography and the argument born of ignorance of dark room techniques has been turned on its head to give us suspicion of digital ‘trickery’ afforded by computers and software.

Liz Well’s states that, “we can, of course, observe……the manipulation of images is nothing new and that photographs have been changed, touched-up or distorted since the earliest days” P74, (2009), Photography: A critical Introduction.  She asserts however that the change of public perception – that is non-photographer public perception – is less to do with the possibility of the digital and non-digital mediums but, “that the authenticity of the photograph was validated less by the nature of the image itself than through the structure of discursive, social and professional practices which constituted photography.” (Ibid) And that any, “radical transformation in this structure makes us uneasy about the status of the photograph” (Ibid). Essentially the shift in technology caused a questioning of perception that wasn’t necessarily applied retrospectively to a history of ‘air-brushed’ studio stars but the “reception and understanding of the world of signs [going forward] may have been transformed.” (Ibid)

There always have been concerns as to the practise of ethics and lack thereof, within photography and other forms of reporting. The change of technology to allow for computer editing has brought to the masses the possibility of this lack of ethics with a bang. The internet is awash with social media jokes as to how professional photographers are asked for unrealistic edits and people have become frightened that what they see might not be real. It is perhaps scary to realise that we see what we want to see be it the Cottingly Fairies or a disempowering depiction of disability.

Wells argues that, “a complex of technical, political, social, and cultural changes has transformed not just photography, but the whole of visual culture” (Ibid). If Jean Bruillard can assert that, “the gulf war did not take place” (ibid) in order to make a commentary as to our experience in the West of said war as a spectacle that played out in news segments on a screen and within the copy and images of a newspaper then is it representation rather than truth?

Photography is so bound by context that determines its curation and possibility of being seen by the public. It depends not just upon the photographer and digital technician but picture editors, the commissioners of photobooks, galleries who might invite an author to exhibit and collectors who might buy. It is not just the digital or the ethics that determine the image, not just the intention of the author but it’s commercial intention and viability and a pre-supposed determination of what a prospective audience might respond to: whether that is the high level shock that Sontag speaks of when she describes what is referred to as ‘compassion fatigue’ (P21, (1978)  On Photography) or the mapping of a less polarised image or set that is neither voyeuristic nor empathetic to the point of lacking objectivity described by Solomon-Godeau, [Inside/Out Essay Online. Photography is not the Heraclitean versus the Democritean extremes described by Baer (P6-8, (2002), Spectral Evidence) either. It is at its most simply put a medium for communication of places, of events, of ideas, feelings and observations. It isn’t compromised by new technology it is compromised by its authors, its readers and its context just as it is author, reader and context that form and create. Yet it does work and work well as an art form.



Baer, U, (2002), Spectral Evidence The Photography of Trauma, MIT Press, London

Sontag, S, (1978)  On Photography, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York

Wells, L, (2009), Photography: A critical Introduction, (4th Edition) Routledge, London and New York

Web Links

Solomon-Godeau, A, [ – Last Accessed -11/04/2017]

Wells, L, (2009), Photography: A critical Introduction, (4th Edition) available as web link [ – last accessed 11/04/2017]