Currently viewing the tag: "Steph Wechsler"

By STEPH WECHSLER
Special to the RJRC

(Left to right) Theirry Gervias, head of research at Ryerson Image Centre, and photojournalist and journalism instructor Peter Bregg Photo: Steph Wechsler

(Left to right) Thierry Gervias, head of research at Ryerson Image Centre, and photojournalist and journalism instructor Peter Bregg. Photo: Steph Wechsler

Digital photography and the capacity to edit pictures quickly and affordably have reopened debate over what editorializing means in images and the nature of photojournalistic neutrality, says award-winning photographer Peter Bregg.

New technologies have expanded the options for manipulating photographs, Bregg said during a panel discussion organized by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre: “If a photo is heavily enhanced in post production is it the truth as it happened, or is the photographer trying to influence the reader?”

Bregg, winner of the 2014 Canadian Journalism Foundation’s lifetime achievement award and an instructor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, was joined on the panel by Thierry Gervais, the head of research at the Ryerson Image Centre and curator of Dispatch: War Photographs in Print, 1854-2008. The pair discussed the evolution of war photography, photojournalism trends, neutrality and how the meaning of images can change depending on the audience and where they are displayed.

“If you’re taking a picture where half the picture [is] in sunlight and the other half [is] in shadow, in the days of film, it wasn’t worth printing usually,” Bregg said. “But with RAW [the uncompressed image file from the sensor in a digital camera or scanner], you can go in there and lighten the shadows so it looks proper. You can darken the highlights in the sunshine so it looks okay.”

The ability to alter images has led to new rules governing what can and cannot be changed, he noted. In the World Press Photo contest, for example, “entrants are not permitted to make changes in colour that result in significant changes in hue to the extent that the processed colours diverge from the original colours,” he said. The rules, however, have not put an end to debates about photo manipulation.

Major controversy, for instance, surrounded Swedish photographer Paul Hansen’s 2013 World Press Photo prize for “Gaza Burial.” Hansen’s image, which depicts a procession of grieving uncles carrying their dead nephews through an alleyway after the children were killed in an Israeli airstrike, came under fire for what critics said appeared to be excessive tonal manipulation in post-production.

Forensic experts who studied the photo found that there were, “no additions– pixel for pixel– or subtractions,” Bregg said, noting that Hansen was allowed to keep his prize. “They did find there was a fair amount of post production, meaning the guy went into Photoshop. He changed the colours a bit to make it more dramatic. Made the shadows darker.”

The rules listed on the World Press Photo website say that adjusting colour is considered acceptable so long as it doesn’t excessively divert from the original image. Minor cropping or removing spots from negatives is also permitted, but staging scenes is completely prohibited. While some of these rules are fairly straightforward, others, as Bregg and Gervais suggested, are highly subjective. The World Press Photo’s 2015 entry rules page, for instance, says that “the content of an image must not be altered. Only retouching that conforms to currently accepted standards in the industry is allowed. The jury is the ultimate arbiter of these standards.”

Bregg argued that while “the standards really haven’t changed, the technology has changed dramatically.” He noted that there is a long history of manipulating news images: “People have been doing this for years in that you went into the darkroom, and if the background didn’t suit you, you could make it darker” by exposing an area of a print for longer.

Alternatively, the practice of dodging – what Bregg said photographers once called “the hand of God,” – is an old darkroom technique that involves waving an object, like a hand, between the enlarger lamp and the paper to limit the exposure, effectively lightening the image.

Gervais pointed to even earlier examples of photo manipulation. Engravings, he noted, were used to reproduce photographs in newspapers in the 19th century, and to make what were considered improvements at the time. Early photographs had a very narrow depth of field so the background was often blurry, but wood engravings could be etched with a higher degree of background detail compared to the original photographs.

Since the wood carvings conveyed details the photographic image could not, the engravings were considered a more complete depiction of the truth, Gervais said.

Editorial discretion, he added, is exercised in every aspect of journalism: “We are always talking about photography as a mechanical process and because of that, [we assume it is] more truthful, it’s more credible. And, okay, we can say that, but of course when you write, you emphasize something and not something else. I think that’s exactly what photographers are doing in this time.”

Gervais said meaning can also be changed depending on the camera used and where and how the photograph is displayed. As an example, he pointed to “Taliban” by French photographer Luc Delahaye. Delahaye’s 2001 image of a dead Taliban fighter was produced in two ways – with a common digital single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, and a panoramic camera. The former resulted in a regular-sized image that was published in the press, while the wider-format image from the latter was hung on the walls of a gallery.

The panoramic image, he noted, tells a story the press photos could not. In it, you can see footprints around the body and that the dead man’s shoes are missing. “He’s been robbed,” said Gervais. “That’s war. That’s what they do. They kill people, take their money, take their boots and leave.

“When you look at [the] photo that has been published taken with the SLR, all of that is gone,” he said. “I saw a kind of paradox. For me, you have a big image in which you can see a lot of detail because everything was super-sharp for the art gallery, and you have a cropped image losing a lot of information in the press. What can we say about that?

“I would have thought that the more information you put the better it is in the press,” he said.

Gervais and Bregg also discussed what makes an image “good.”

To Gervais, “an image is made of lines, it’s made of tones, it’s made of colours.” But most people can’t articulate why they like or dislike an image – it’s the intangible combination of visual elements, style and subject matter that make an image a success or a failure, he said.

Bregg said that instinct factors into the sense that a photograph works. He noted that submissions to the World Press Photo contest have soared in recent years so that these days a picture has to be “different” to get a judge’s attention. And while black and white was once the photographic standard, now it’s considered novel and arty: “What’s old is new and what’s new is old,” he observed.

The panelists agreed that while there have been momentous changes in equipment, access and taste, the core principle of photojournalism – the need to accurately convey what happened – hasn’t changed.

“The technology has changed but the ethics haven’t,” said Bregg. “We’re still supposed to work with the same ethics we did 100 years ago.”

Based on guidelines listed by Word Press Photo, the Canadian Association of Journalists and the National Press Photographer’s Association.

Based on guidelines listed by Word Press Photo, the Canadian Association of Journalists and the National Press Photographer’s Association.

By STEPH WECHSLER

Special to the RJRC

February 26, 2016

Farrah Khan, coordinator of Ryerson's Sexual Violence Support and Education Office speaks to students on Feb. 10

Farrah Khan, coordinator of the Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education at Ryerson speaks to students on Feb. 10

Jian Ghomeshi’s trial has given Canadians a crash course in the parameters of consent and a comprehensive case study on how the media covers sexual violence.

Farrah Khan, co-ordinator of the Office for Sexual Violence Support and Education at Ryerson University, called the climate around the case “tumultuous,” and urged journalists to be mindful of how they tell stories involving sexual assault.

“When you’re reporting, people are listening,” said Khan, who was invited by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre to discuss a guide she co-authored for journalists on covering sexual assault.

Khan said the media plays a key role in shaping how survivors are perceived and creating a climate in which they feel able to come forward.

“Survivors are listening, community members are listening, institutions are listening. So how you shape your stories and how you have this conversation has a direct impact on how people feel safer maybe to disclose, to have the conversation, or to talk to their peers.”

The reporting on the former CBC radio host’s trial for sexual assault has generated controversy on the nature of memory. What does a “perfect victim” look and act like? What makes a survivor’s testimony credible? Is forgetting details or seeking to reconcile with an assailant a sign that a survivor is not believable?

Khan told students that although myths about sexual violence persist, journalists can play a role in debunking them.

She pointed to “Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada,” a guide developed by femifesto, a feminist collective that works to define and dismantle rape culture. The guide offers practical tools for journalists, and outlines many of the insidious ways rape culture is advanced by media.

One way rape culture manifests is through the “perfect victim” myth, Khan said. The media perpetuates this idea by using language that prescribes how a survivor should behave.

Implied is the notion that for the complainant to attain “perfect victim” status, their recall of facts must be “superhuman.” They must have the foresight to disclose information their own counsel hasn’t mentioned. Their behaviour toward their assailant must not contradict popular assumptions of how we should act toward those who have wronged us.

Journalists should be conscious of the conflicting messages women receive, Khan said, since survivors are frequently given contradictory advice once they come forward. Khan described instances where survivors are prepped for legal proceedings. She said they’re often told, “‘Don’t dress too pretty, but don’t dress dowdy. Don’t look too innocent, but don’t look too slutty.’”

The onus is put on women to avoid violence: “ ‘Don’t go on dates alone, you could get sexually assaulted. Don’t go on dates in groups, because you could get gang raped. Don’t go on dates with your boyfriend because he could sexually assault you, but don’t go on dates with strangers because they’re completely different and they may hurt you too.’

“Women are constantly told to live in fear.”

All of these prescriptions about how women and survivors of assault should behave contribute to a narrative that media reiterate when reporting on the few cases that make it to trial. (Khan said that of 1,000 instances of sexual assault, only 33 are reported to police and only 12 result in charges laid. Of those, six are prosecuted and only three assailants are convicted.)

Keeping quiet, ignoring or even seeking to befriend assailants are commonplace for survivors. Khan noted that globally, one in three girls and one in seven boys experience sexual abuse before they’re 12.

“That means we’ve already been taught from a young age that we have to be okay, mend, repair, forget, appease, befriend our abusers, because usually they’re in our families,” she said.

This shifts accountability onto survivors, and foments the guilt and shame that prevent more people from coming forward.

Many circumstances exclude a survivor from “perfect victim” status. The guide advises against using the term “victim” for these reasons, as it connotes someone “passive, perfectly compliant with police and prosecutor’s demands, not angry, sexually pure (which isn’t just about personal history, it’s about race, class and other identities and what meanings are attached to them.)”

Khan said that the media omits certain narratives of sexual assault and pointed to a study from Saskatchewan that concluded “indigenous women received three and a half times less coverage, their articles were shorter and they were less likely to appear on the front page.”

Even at a time when conversations about sexual violence are gaining traction, assaults of people who don’t neatly fit into “perfect victim” caricatures remain underreported. A 2011 Egale report cited in femifesto’s media guide says that 49 per cent of trans students experience sexual harassment at school, as do 40 per cent of gay and 33 per cent of lesbian students. Based on femifesto’s findings, incidents of sexual violence against those who identify as queer are vastly underreported in media.

The guide also notes that sexual assault involving racialized women or women with disabilities garners little coverage.

Sex workers don’t fit the “perfect victim” model, Khan said. By underreporting incidents and using the word “prostitute” in headlines and articles, the media fails to capture their humanity.

“The majority of people that do sex work are oftentimes from marginalized communities, so what are we saying about marginalized bodies, too?”

Based on social beliefs that bolster rape culture, people assume men do not experience sexual violence, so they don’t fit the “perfect victim” model either. As a result, “when journalists talk about men being sexually assaulted, oftentimes men are faced with what women are faced with in reality and in the world, which is mockery, which is people saying it didn’t happen,” Khan said.

The characterizations of the accused or perpetrators need to be carefully considered as well, Khan said. Often, articles will name the achievements or status of the perpetrator. Descriptors like “star athlete, or well-liked business man or well-liked priest” serve to portray the perpetrator as upstanding, which can make the survivor seem less credible by contrast.

In discussing the Ghomeshi trial, it’s important to remember the women who worked alongside him, Khan said.

A 2013 study from the International Women’s Media Foundation showed that 48 per cent of women journalists globally have experienced sexual harassment at work, and 14 per cent have experienced sexual violence. Considering the nature of the industry – working as a public figure, in closed rooms, in precarious labour positions – it’s important to “think about how you’re going to do self care for yourself when you’re telling stories,” she said.

In all cases, consciously constructing questions and framing incidents within a vast range of sexual assault types is important, Khan said.

“Think about how you’re naming survivors. Think about their strength. Think about how they’re moving forward.”

Some of the best practices listed in the femifesto guide include:

  • Ask your sources how they want their story told and how they want to be identified.
  • Use words that properly convey the violence and lack of consent in sexual assaults.
  • Convey that surviving sexual assault does not wholly define survivors.
  • Challenge your own assumptions about the impact and reality of sexual violence.
  • Don’t treat survivors of sexual assault as if they’re all alike.