Liz Wells – The Real and the Digital (2009)


I used this exercise to contemplate and respond to research and opinion in a written form. Not to conclude or make a statement but as an exercise to think and reflect on numerous opinions and situations surrounding a very complex, changing subject.

The title of this section; The Real and The Digital, in her book Photography: A critical introduction, reveals her viewpoint—an implicit distinction between Real and Digital. As separate entities, opposites, as the digital is not real and the real cannot be digital. When it comes to photographic technologies and their position in society, the zeitgeist is increasingly important in an exponentially accelerating society and technological enhancement of that society and, therefore, accepting new technology and further digitalisation.
The initial edition, used for this exercise, is from 2009. It was the first year for Barak Obama being president on his first term in the US. In the UK Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were PM. Fake news, fake media, Russian election interventions, trolling factories on the internet, even Instagram did not exist; Twitter was starting, the zeitgeist and technological context of Liz Wells contemplation on true or false (fake), digital or analogue, our perception and acceptance of the validity of the medium while digital.  Wells’s chapter is written over a decade ago about the digital, and photography included seems outdated, almost meaningless, a historic fact at most.

Faces are created in automated, self-learning frameworks, producing any facial characteristic either based on an existing “real” face or another “synthetic”. Capable of making millions of new, synthetic faces in new artificial environments. To the human eye and mind, they are all true, indistinguishable from the “real true thing” and still improving, fast.

Liz Wells argues in a kind of layering which makes it challenging to reflect singularly: Is digital true, is manipulation allowed, what is true and what do we still accept as true, furthermore, do we accept digital images as real, do we accept photography as, compared to other media, the most correct representation of the actual situation, and therefore the truth or is our belief in the medium waning?

To put this chapter by Wells in the correct context in her book, I bought the newer 2015 version, the one the course reader refers to. In this later version, Wells has rewritten the chapter and adjusted or nuanced her opinion. The chapter is now titled: Defining the real in the digital age (Wells, 2015). (The coursebook title reference seems incorrect.)

Any argument becomes almost impossible without defining the actual function of the photograph, its intention. This goes beyond the question of genres, which is mostly an arbitrary value anyway.  Liz Well struggles with the same question: “It is increasingly difficult to distinguish one kind of photographic practice from another.”(Wells, 2015)  She also indicates a new boundary to be defined, the one between manipulation and synthetic. Changing what is there or creating new from non-existing. Would the latter be a new truth, and does it matter in an era where even our world leaders can diminish every opinion as being false and fake without any repercussions? Opposite, for the populistic leaders with autocratic characteristics, the denial of truth is the modus operandi in major world societies. US, UK, China, Brazil, Hungary, Poland. A global devaluation of truth or unfounded falsification of journalistic observations includes photography, specifically photography. Hence, it was indeed the medium representing in a way closest to the human eye and, therefore, depicting our human visual observations.

Digital media … will not merely simulate an older style of photography, but strategies will emerge that are more capable of depicting an evolving universe.(Ritchin, 2013)

In her 5th edition, although the same section is mainly identical, the title changed into “Defining the real in the digital world”. Wells now seems further in acceptance of digital, the need to define genres or intentions, purpose I would prefer. She correctly states that citizen (digital) photography is immense and will replace much of the representational function of professional photography. She correctly addresses the war against journalism by many governments, disallowing photojournalist on a site, physically obstruct or hurt them or better, arrest them. The truth or at least an alternative opinion or viewpoint is increasingly under threat: “….If we add to these economic forces the fact that some governments and participants make it increasingly difficult for photographers to work in scenes of conflict.” (Wells, 2015). Where Citizen photography, or video better,  takes over the reporting of actualities, photography, digital or not, it becomes more and more an illustration, an explanatory picture. The truth, or accurate representation of the actual observation, becomes less important and less verifiable, it loses its depictive authority. As Sontag already indicated with her phrase: “The weight of words and the shock of photo’s”, the truth lies in the narrative, the image is just there to enhance it. Does it matter how the image is made?

They might be seen to be carrying on the old task of ‘bearing witness’ while working outside the structures of professional photography. Indeed, it is possible that the pictures of conflict returned from a simple camera or a mobile phone may imprint the notion of the authentic more securely than the sophisticated images presented by a professional photographer.(Wells, 2015).

I’ve noticed in recent developments in the US around the death of George Floyd. The initial and chocking truth was made by citizens using (digital) video. Would it be that chocking if it was just a single photograph, I wonder? The images, sound, and last words are shocking actualities that would never be achieved using (digital)stills. However, the newspapers like the New York Times and the Guardian, continue to use professional, aesthetically balanced and high-quality professional images, made by professional photographers on the ground to report on the aftermath and the social disturbances following this event. They enhance the narrative, the explanatory, the mood, as is the primary function of illustrations.

However in the era of video , photography loses this monopoly on stillness and immediacy (David Campany, 2003)

It seems as if everything in this first part of this course unit falls nicely into place at the end. Not that my initial thought drastically changed direction, it certainly gained weight. There is not one “photography” as there is not one painting or one writing. The method used to express, (re)produce and publish, is less important than transparency on the intentions and purpose (traceability and origin?). The definitions of genres seem insufficient to arbitrate the allowance of enhancing, manipulation or synthesis of photographs; one could argue the correctness of the definition of photography stretches that far. Still, perhaps it is an evolutionary concept, altogether. Our opinion is under permanent influence of falsity, mislead and intensification to overcome our growing numbness on the information in general, particularly photography. It is incomplete to correlate digital to manipulation, to falsity: staging, misuse, posing, selection, al methods outside the technical process with an equal effect. Digital manipulation will most likely be the one technology at the end that can be traced the easiest. Camera embedded authenticity markers and image analytics are as smart as the manipulations; digital might be closer to verifiable authenticity than any other technology previously. The fear of the new remains, its only human.

Digital (mobile citizen) mass reporting seems increasingly a means to define an event’s implicit authenticity (straight, witness reporting). A large number of sources (mobile users) visually report the same event. Falsification of the event itself seems less obvious if not impossible, depending on the number of sources. What remains is the interpretation of the event and selection of the illustration (photo). Primarily, photography here loses his narrating function and becomes a forensic tool to define authenticity in the hand of the citizen, not as much a visual addition to the opinion. The intention (genre) of the image determines the acceptance of manipulation and the use (framing/context) of citizen imaging. In the latest newsworthy events, media use citizen journalism/photography to define and authenticate an event and use professional photographers and editors to enhance opinion and emotion. The use of episodic frames is the widest used type of reporting, opposed thematic frames (Bal and Baruh, 2015) correlates well between citizen episodic and media thematic frames. The use of these episodic frames, however, do not include traditional, journalistic truth-finding. They tend to provide journalistic democracy to the playing field, where the producer also becomes the consumer (Bal and Baruh, 2015). According Bal and Baruh, citizen journalism seems mostly related to emergency/crisis witnessing, without further fact, cause, context or consequence check. This makes it authentic and democratic reporting, but not per definition reliable truthful and trustworthy journalism. Again, the purpose of reporting defines its allowed deviations to reality and truth, if the latter was a universal value

Stuart Franklin (Franklin, 2016) puts the discussion back into (analogue) perspective: Manipuler un image, c’ést entire (to manipulate an image is to lie) was the response of the World Press Photo Contest jury after disqualifying 22% of the photographers for digital manipulation. The Associated Press agreed. However, the common practice of staging or any other pre-processing manipulation of the scene is less clear but has the same, if not worse misleading character. This fact is growingly problematic for the industry and media. When the press photographer uses structural or factual manipulation of the scene or its registration, his function becomes useless and is simply replaced further by a citizen reporting. There seems a trend in manipulating the event by traditional media to enhance emotion around thematic frames and disregard the context by citizen reporting on episodic frames. Does this combination mean increased reliability, strengthened by the thought; best of both world or exactly the opposite?


Bibliography/Reference list

Bal, H. and Baruh, L. (2015). Citizen involvement in emergency reporting: A study on witnessing and citizen journalism. Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture, 6.

David Campany. (2003). Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’’ – David Campany.’ [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Jun. 2020].

Franklin, S. (2016). The documentary impulse. London ; New York, Ny: Phaidon Press.

Ritchin (2013). Bending the frame. Photojournalism, documentary and citizen. New York: Aperture Foundation Inc.

Sontag, S. (2017). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus And Giroux.

Wells, L. (2009). Photography : a critical introduction. London ; New York: Routledge.

Wells, L. (2015). Photography a critical introduction. London [U.A] Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Wells, L. (2019). The Photography reader : history and theory. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, Ny: Routledge.

Wikipedia Contributors (2020). List of prime ministers of the United Kingdom. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: [Accessed 7 Jun. 2020].









(Wells, 2015)