The truth about digital photography

There have been two different phases in the relatively short history of digital photography.

First was the apocalyptic phase, when there were dire warnings of 'the end of photography'.

The coming 'revolution', it was claimed, would fundamentally reconfigure the photographic 'eye'.

We would be cast adrift from the firm shores of analogue photography, where chemical emulsion reliably reacted to the light reflected from real-world scenes, and left to float on a digital sea where pictures, now just data, could be changed at will.

Like many apocalypses, this one didn't come.

Although iconic names such as Kodak were swept away into history, the practice of photography itself went from strength to strength.

Cameras got cheaper and smaller and people took more and more photos to post on social media.

Far from being bankrupted, the newly ubiquitous medium gained more impact than ever.

What those Chicken Littles didn't realise is that photography is much more than just a technology, it is a social practice, a personal habit, a psychological need, an accumulated history of looking and, increasingly, a global network of exchange.

Photographic truth is supported by social protocols, and it is the multiple micro-recalibrations of these that we are currently experiencing in the second phase of digital photography.

News organisations still protect direct photon to pixel mapping.

When Adnan Hajj, a hapless stringer for Reuters, was caught out by sharp-eyed bloggers using Photoshop's clone tool to increase the amount of smoke rising from Beirut after a 2006 Israel bombing raid, he was summarily dropped. All 920 of his images were immediately removed from the Reuters site and a picture editor was sacked.

However, while minor excisions and additions to the image are strictly policed, enhancements or modifications to the connotational 'feel' of the reportage image as a whole are still allowed by press photography protocols.

In 2010, Stepan Rudik was stripped of his World Press Photo award, not because the photograph he submitted, Street Fighting, Kiev, Ukraine, had been radically cropped and not because he had applied a heavy Photoshop filter, but because he had digitally removed a tiny pinch of pixels representing the intrusive foot of an irrelevant figure in the background.

This year, 20 per cent of World Press Photo entries were disqualified for similar digital cutting and pasting and controversies like these, big and small, continue to erupt across the Internet.