The Digital Journalist
The Plane Truth
November 2003

by Peter Howe

I'm a really bad tempered flyer. If the TSA screened for emotions as well as for hidden metal objects I would never be allowed on a plane. I think it's the result of too many hours over too many years spent on aircraft crewed by flight attendants who were former corrections officers. American Airlines for one must train their cabin staff to be that unpleasant; it's too consistent to be coincidental. Anyway, if you happen to have the misfortune (a) to be on a plane in the first place, and (b) to be seated next to me, it's probably better for both of us if you don't strike up a conversation. If you don't, I can assure you that I won't; I never talk to my fellow passengers.

I did, however, make an exception to this rule recently. This was mainly because I was sitting next to Peter Turnley, a fellow contributor to this site, and I feel safe talking to someone I've known for more than a decade. We had both been attending a symposium on conflict coverage at the University of Texas in Austin, and Peter brought up several points that managed to kick-start my brain into something resembling coherent thought. One in particular was the difference between black and white and color in the digital age. When I was a photographer your decision to shoot either was based upon what kind of film you put in the camera. Today if you shoot digitally you're collecting electronic data that can produce both a color and black and white rendition of the scene recorded. Peter said that he had heard that some judges in a photography contest had disallowed an entry because it was a digital picture that had been output in black and white. Coincidentally I had been talking to another of the symposium's participants, Ron Haviv, about the same subject just the day before.

Ron felt that when you take a black and white photograph you think differently than when shooting color, and that you can't just convert a color picture and expect to get satisfactory results. I agreed with him at the time because my first instinct is always to agree with somebody. It gives a slow mind the time to consider the alternatives without the interruption of an argument. Having thought about it, and having listened to Peter I'm not so sure. Even predating the advent of digital technology many images that we have grown to know and admire as black and white were initially captured in color. One of my all-time favorite photography books is Vietnam Inc, by Philip Jones Griffith, a collection of some of the most powerful depictions of not only that war but of any that have been photographed, and all in black and white. Some of them I know were converted from color, but I challenge you to identify them in the book. Today, using Photoshop, with just a click of the mouse you have the choice between mono, duo, tri and quadtone versions with none of the quality loss that often occurred when converting transparencies. And if technology gives you the freedom to make those decisions sitting calmly in front of your computer and without the pressures of shooting why not take advantage of it? Isn't the whole point of digital technology that it should liberate us from the restrictions that the older technologies imposed upon us? Shouldn't we use the tools that allow us to express our vision in the most powerful way?

I hear the word manipulation forming on someone's lips. Yes, you're right, converting a digital file to monochrome in Photoshop is manipulation, but photography is manipulation from beginning to end. Your choice of lens is manipulation; so is the way you frame, the shutter speed and aperture at which you shoot, your selection of Fuji or Kodak color film if film is what you're shooting, which frame you select from the contact sheet, or even whether you print your selection on matte or glossy paper. How many times have you waited until "golden hour" before shooting a landscape? Isn't that manipulation? The reality is that "real life" doesn't look like a photograph, which of course is one of the reasons that we take photographs in the first place. There is a huge difference between manipulation and distortion, and as journalists it is the latter that we must avoid like the plague. The moment is sacrosanct; how we choose to express that moment is not only our right as photographers, it is also the reason that we are employed by those few remaining souls who still commission photography.

Back on the plane in between the teeth endangering pretzels that masquerade as an American Airlines lunch and the thimbles of beverage that accompany them we looked at a selection of Peter's work on his laptop. Some of his photographs look better in color, and some in black and white. It's as simple as that, both photographically and ethically. One of the lesser-known downsides of the digital revolution is that I've started shooting again. My interest in taking photographs rather than just talking about them has been reinvigorated by technology. I personally don't find any difference in using a digital camera over a traditional one, apart from the fact that you can get better results in low light levels. Where I do find a crucial distinction is in the control over the result that I get after shooting, what I suppose Hollywood would call post-production. It's then that I can get the image to communicate what I intend it to, and without jeopardizing content within its borders.

It seems to me that we so often erect unnecessary hurdles in our commendable efforts to be ethical, and that they become barriers that trip us up and hamper our ability to say to our audience "this is what I saw and it was bad/good/ depressing/inspiring." We step a fine line between journalism and art because the best photojournalists are not just reporters but commentators. Technology can help us to convey our ideas if we use it wisely and not impose upon ourselves rules that so restrict us that we become defined by it. It should serve us rather than vice versa, and if we remain faithful to the truth that we see and the vision that we have then we through it we can become more effective as communicators.

In this spirit I think that the next panel I'm on I'm going to videoconference in. I may miss the dinner in the evening but at least I won't have to get on a plane. Like I said, you have to make technology work for you.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor