One of the best books I read last year was Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It explores the phenomenon of internet shaming through the experiences of people whose lives have been ruined by the online reaction to a mistake they have made. In all cases, they suffer consequences that are massively disproportionate to the offence they committed. They include a journalist whose career was wrecked when it was discovered he had made up a quote; a PR executive vilified for tweeting a joke in poor taste and a careworker who was sacked from her job when a Facebook photo surfaced of her posing ‘disrespectfully’ in front a war memorial.
Ronson is disturbed by the way in which otherwise decent and sane people weigh in to these daily outpourings of self-righteous anger. Social Media has certainly given a platform to marginalised voices and reactions of this kind serve a useful purpose when holding corrupt governments or corporations to account. However, things start to look a lot more sinister when the target is an individual who has simply made a minor transgression.
The latest scapegoat of this mass outrage is Chay Yu Wei, an amateur photographer from Singapore. He won a Nikon photo competition for this image. The prize was a bag. It soon emerged that he had superimposed the plane using an app called Picsart. When Nikon found out, they cancelled the prize and Chay posted a lengthy apology.
Anyone interested in architectural images on Instagram would immediately spot that the plane was added in afterwards. It is a well-worn trope and over 8000 pictures are tagged #putaplaneonit. Some are done extremely well and others are clumsier. I made a video a couple of weeks ago gently mocking this whole trend of adding plane silhouettes. Some may find it irritating, but it is a harmless enough thing to do.
It turns out that Chay’s crime was not that he doctored his photo, but the fact that he misled people about it. When he originally posted it, someone asked him how long he had to wait for the plane to pass. He responded: “Not too long, I was lucky.” To make things worse, his picture looked very similar to one posted by a fellow Singaporean Lee Yik Keat (who freely admitted he added the plane afterwards). The backlash was furious. By yesterday afternoon it was the second highest trending article on the BBC website. The comments under his apology are initially supportive before getting increasingly aggressive:
“Lies, lies and more lies. Bellend.”
“…You should hang your head in absolute shame. If I were you, I’d give up photography…”
“Disgusting. Really disgusting. You have shamed photography.”
“Your apology is nothing but a half-ass attempt to reverse something you can’t turn around. Have a nice day, now go fuck yourself.”
“Kill yourself please.”
By adding a plane onto his photo, Chay had not only tricked his way into winning a competition, he had grievously undermined the integrity of photography as an art form. I was taken aback by the strength of feeling towards this and checked the Instagram profiles of those who expressed their disgust in such strong terms. I was expecting to find galleries filled with images that were perfectly exposed and told a moving story about the human condition. Instead I found gurning selfies, fluffy kittens and Starbucks lattes.
Nevertheless, this reaction gave me pause to think about the images I’ve created over the last couple of years. Here are just some of the sins I have committed:
- Blending in clipart silhouettes of people
- Blending two or more images together
- Adding fake light
- Adding fake water
- Adding fake fog
- Using a mirroring app to achieve perfect symmetry
- Using a retouching app to remove unwanted elements
- Applying lens distortion tools
- Slapping on all sorts of colour filters and textural overlays
- Inserting graphic objects
In other words, I use almost every editing trick available to make my pictures.
There seems to be an expectation among the outraged commenters that photography has to be ‘real’ and reveal the ‘truth’. Yet creative editing has been around as long as the medium itself. Whilst the likes of Vivian Maier, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson have elevated it to a serious art form, there has always been a more playful side to it as these 19th century trick photos demonstrate.
I had long enjoyed playing with different apps but got more interested in editing when a combination of family circumstances curtailed the time I had to go out and take new photos. As frustrated as I was not to be able to develop my skill as a photographer, I found a new creative outlet and it was completely liberating. The reaction on Instagram has generally been positive until recently when someone wrote: “Please stop adding people silhouettes, they’re so much better without!”
This made me think, what do people expect from my images and should I care? The etiquette on Instagram means that comments are almost always supportive so when a rare critical one appears, (even one as mild as that) it makes you think about what you’re doing.
The answer is that I do care because otherwise why bother sharing pictures online in the first place? The important thing to keep in mind is that it is all meant to be fun. None of us are journalists risking our lives to take photos from a warzone, so does it matter if our photos are 100% realistic or not? Nobody complains that the latest Star Wars film has been computer generated, so why can’t the same thing apply to images shared on social media?
The key is to be open about it. I don’t explicitly state if or how I have edited a picture, but it usually pretty easy to tell. If asked how I created it, I will happily share my editing techniques and say what apps I used. The medium of photography is surely big enough to accommodate realism and creative editing. People only get upset when they think you are trying to deceive them in some way. Chay went wrong by pretending his image was something it wasn’t. He still doesn’t deserve the abuse though. If anything the competition organisers are at fault for not spotting something so obvious.
So if you ever feel tempted to #putaplaneonit, own up to it from the start and nobody will mind.