July 28th, 2015
Altered Images at the Bronx Documentary Center
How—and why—do photojournalists change their photographs? A new exhibition, Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography, on view at the Bronx Documentary Center through August 2, posits that the history of altered news pictures might provide an alternative history of photojournalism itself. In the 1850s and 1860s, war photographers such as Roger Fenton (in Crimea) and Alexander Gardner (during the Civil War) rearranged cannon balls and bodies to make the image more true to life, since action photography was impossible. By the 1930s, Robert Capa used film and Leicas, which allowed him to capture action but brought different sorts of problems. How did Capa manage to capture a Spanish soldier dying from a bullet wound? The unforgettable picture first appeared on September 23, 1936 in France’s VU, and modern researchers still debate whether Capa was at the place identified in the caption.
Altered Images was born out of such questions, and from director (and award-winning photojournalist) Mark Kamber’s desire to reinforce a code of journalist ethics that he perceives to be at risk, largely because of the economic and technical crises that now threaten news media.
The show includes over one hundred cases of alteration, from the 1850s to the present, each accompanied by informative captions. We see the image as originally published, what the show calls the “Representation,” in the form of front pages of newspapers, pages of magazines, and screen shots. A text describing the “Reality” identifies the alteration and the reason behind it, in numerous cases including quotes from the photographer.
Alteration in photojournalism is not a new story, but it has become simpler to do with the rise of digital journalism, confirmed here by the fact that the majority of examples from this exhibition date from recently. The most recent front-page story dates from January 11, 2015 when world leaders joined a Paris demonstration for the slain journalists of French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo. The Orthodox Israeli paper HaMevaser, altered a photograph of the march taken by Haim Zach, removing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, and President of Switzerland Simonetta Sommaruga. Their presence, as women, violated religious beliefs of publisher, editors and readers —a reminder that such censors always believe in the justice of their work.
We are left prompted to ask different kinds of questions: what kind of information remains immune to alteration? What kind of photographic evidence cannot be altered? This exhibition, refreshingly, does not pretend to offer answers.