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News & Insight

Esteemed Photographer Don McCullin Says Digital Images Can’t Be Trusted

By Kishore Sawh on November 30th 2015


I’m generally reluctant to read the Guardian, and sometimes wary of those of Guardian persuasion for reasons and biases too entrenched to get into here. That said, they’ve recently reported some words of a rather famous photographer, Don McCullin, whose work in conflict areas around the globe I’ve admired for some time. Many photographers say a lot of things but what he said, and where he said it, and to whom, that’s caught the attention of many (including myself), and I’d venture to say many of you as well.

He’s a new entry in the octogenarian club and spoke recently at an event where he was honored as a master of photography at Photo London. Of course as respected photojournalist for major publications for decades his words certainly carried some extra weight, especially when he drops a line like, “…digital photography can be a totally lying kind of experience…


This is the kind of statement that draws a line in the sand for many with few who straddle it, and there’s been a lot of chatter about it. However, the entirety of what he said has been reduced to the most poignant punchline devoid of context. He wasn’t actually demonizing digital photography necessarily, but rather felt in many ways it had been ‘hijacked” due to the fact,

…the digital cameras are extraordinary. I have a dark room and I still process film but digital photography can be a totally lying kind of experience, you can move anything you want … the whole thing can’t be trusted really.

He went on further to speak about how he has always viewed photography as less an art form but more a way of communicating and passing on accurate information. It seems as if digital images don’t do that as much, and is more art than photography. This is, interestingly, quite opposite in many ways to my favorite British photographer, David Bailey, who has famously referred to himself as an artist but not a photographer. McCullin clearly finds it quite fine to be called a photographer only,

Many people misunderstand me – I’m quite happy to be called a photographer. All of a sudden the art world has caught up with photography and they are trying to hijack us.

However, even as he has said this, he does mention that it’s probably due to the type of work he does, that requires a sort of embracing of violence in wars and revolutions and famines, where he finds it difficult to be artful rather then represent what’s there. To this end, he has shot and still shoots film, he develops at his house. It seems he doesn’t like the over saturation of the digital images. Of course, this is just one person’s view, and one of more a journalistic nature, but I tend to feel the same, or similar.



I see a torrent of images all the time, perhaps more than most, and what I’m seeing is just an overabundance of over saturated images I feel a massive disconnect from because the scene has been so altered. And while it may be somewhat interesting to look at briefly, it’s not all art, and it doesn’t all mean something. Interestingly too, is that the working professionals I’ve known and met in fashion and commercial and fine art, all seem to think the same. It’s Art Basel here in Miami, and many galleries just aren’t looking for massively altered saturated images. It seems we may be moving away from that to something more raw. I’m all for it, but I’m just another young man with an opinion. What’s yours?

Source: The Guardian

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Tanya Goodall Smith

    I love raw, real, capturing a moment photographs. It’s what I crave. Sometimes I get totally bored with portraiture. I totally get where he’s coming from. I also really love digital because of all the things you can do with it that might not have been possible with film. Thanks for sharing this.

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  2. Pancho Villa

    Well this is just a rather stupid narrow minded view and ends up looking like a desperate attempt to get some attention..nothing to see here

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  3. Brian Stricker

    Digital photography can’t be trusted because of photo manipulation but what he captured is 100% truth since it was on film? He decided what to include in his frame, he decided where he was going to shoot, he made many decisions in order to capture the image he did in order to tell the story that he wanted using his photography. Beyond what he included in the images we see form him there are the ones that were never shared. I guess my point is………well, I will be nice…..

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  4. norman tesch

    ok im kinda confused…i looked through mr mccullins photos. to me they looked like snapshots taken at the right place at the right time, which i believe allot of photography is. exampleyou can go to the beach a 100 times but until you get a nice fog or sunset that photo will just be average at best. he is in a war zone how can you not have shock and awe? to complain about hdr when it looks like photos are underexposed for effect.

    i also understand that its his opinion he is more than welcome to voice it he has that right. but i consider myself still a beginner. i just dont understand either where people are given a title of esteemed. was he the only photographer in a war zone. from what i have seen as far as titles given to people is more who you know than actual work.

    this isent an attack as much as it is a question…

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    • robert raymer

      …to me they looked like snapshots taken at the right place at the right time

      Well he is offering his opinion as primarily a documentary and street photographer, in which he needs to capture moments that may never happen again as accurately as possibly, so your complaint is basically his point, expressed differently. Images documented on film are/were much more difficult to manipulate than digital images. While it did happen, often for propaganda purposes, it made/makes film a more useful tool in accurately documenting something, especially news/documentary stories. Because digital is far easier to manipulate very quickly, it could (should?) be viewed with more suspicion as a primary source, and thus less “trusted”.

      “f/8 and be there”
      -Arthur Fellig’s response to his photojournalistic technique

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  5. Greg Geis

    I feel similar to Kishore. When I browse through all of the top images on 500PX, they are really fantastic images. I just don’t connect with 90% of them like I would with a Nat Geo etc photo. They just look like very well crafted digital art, which cheapens it for me.

    I struggle with the same thing, when I really catch the light right and I’m looking at my RAW file trying to figure out what all I need to dodge and burn and make pop. Then it hits me, “holy shit, I just took a good photo, I don’t have to do anything!” …then I add a subtle vingette and go on. Can’t help myself…

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  6. Cary McCaughey

    Very much enjoy all aspects of photography….strictly photography and highly manipulated that invoke emotions as well. Art is speculated in the eye of the beholder…right? There can be an argument for anyone’s perspective. No right. No wrong.

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  7. Holger Broschek

    I think what every photographer does is interpreting reality and as such everey interpretation is highly subjective.
    Even if one uses film and purely analog technology the photograph will still be merely an interpretation of what was really happening. So for me, all the discussion about digital vs. analog makes no sense in the search for more “truthful” photographs. History has taught us, that analog photography is just as prone to manipulation as is digital photography.

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  8. Ingrid Charalambous

    I love and admire pure photography.

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  9. Stephen Jennings

    This is a stupid argument.
    Is film in any way “real life” .. erm .. no .. I mean if you wanted to be really technical, a mild well done HDR image is actually closer to “reality” to the Human eye since we have a significantly higher dynamic range than the most advanced cameras can comprehend, and no film can.

    It’s like saying telephoto lenses are lies because we’d never be able to naturally see from this perspective. Or high-ISO film is a lie – which no camera exist than can match the Human eyes natural “iso” ability.

    In a dark room you can also manipulate the hell out of photos .. it’s well documented throughout history, since its inception, photos have been merged, edited, experimented with and manipulated into lies. This guy is showing his age, lamenting a dead technology.

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  10. robert raymer

    I think his opinion is very subjective, and due in large part to the fact that he is predominantly a photojournalist. in that context, I think he is absolutely correct. It is hard to trust a digital image as “news” due to the fact that the ease with which an image can be modified and the access to the tools to do it are so prevalent. Anyone who is half decent at photoshop could alter a “news” image to tell any story they wanted, and as such it becomes difficult to know what the truth behind the story is unless you are looking at/publishing an unedited raw file. The counterpoint to this of course being that photo manipulation, though not nearly as ubiquitous or easy as it is today, has been around as long as photography itself, and that there are far more subtle ways for a photographer to manipulate their images to tell the story they want to portray even in camera with film. Every decision, from aperture and shutter speed, to how to frame a shot to include/exclude visual information, to simply what to photograph is part of that decision.

    As far as other genres go (fashion, commercial, etc) digital can be a life saver specifically because of the reduction in time and cost of development as well as relative ease of retouching all compared with film, but unfortunately I also think that to many “professional” photographers, it is a crutch as well. I can not count the number of people calling themselves professionals that could not reproduce their digital work on film. So many rely on their ability to retouch/photoshop their images to look the way they want (or worse, have someone else do it for them) that they never bother to learn how to actually shoot. Gone are the days of knowing how to light an image and how to use a light meter and polaroids and instead we are in the days of shoot, look at the histogram, then move the light around until it looks ok.

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  11. Nate Castner

    “And while it may be somewhat interesting to look at briefly, it’s not all art, and it doesn’t all mean something.”

    This is an incredibly bold statement. Who are you to define art and call out artists who just might be pushing the envelope and taking photography to a different level? People always use the “shitty HDR” example, but I think the only people making the obviously oversaturated overcontrasty “shitty HDR” are amateurs new to photoediting and are discovering the crazy things they can do with Photoshop. It doesn’t make it any less art. I wonder what contemporary painters said about the development of surrealism or artists like Picasso who were creating something outside the norm? Funny enough, in Googling Picasso, I found these quotes of his:

    Everything you can imagine is real.
    Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.

    There are all different kinds of photography too! Of course a war photojournalist working for BBC should aim to capture the scene exactly as it was. But should I, as a wedding photographer, be limited to the setting presented to me? Of course not! My job is to make the best images possible, and if I need to manipulate something to deliver that to my clients, I guarantee they won’t be complaining.

    Bottom line, no photographer should care about the style of another photographer. Let them create the images they want to. If you don’t like them, don’t follow them on Instagram. Problem solved. If the masses like oversaturated HDR, then that artist/photographer found their following. Why anyone complains about things like this is beyond me…

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  12. Ralph Hightower

    Film images can also be manipulated. Ansel Adams was an artist in the darkroom with his dodging and burning for prints.
    I shot film exclusively from 1980 up through December 2013 when I bought a DSLR. In late 2011, I added Adobe Lightroom to my workflow because I liked the database capability of Lightroomto catalog the scanned images of my film photos. For the year 2012, I used B&W film exclusively, with Kodak BW400CN, a C-41 B&W film, being my preferred film of choice for getting it developed locally. However, the scans of BW400CN had a sepia cast about it where I used Lightroom to reduce the saturation of the image to make it look like a traditional silver-based B&W film.

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  13. Carolyn Dingus

    It’s not just HDR or over-saturation, it’s also over-sharpened, over-contrasted, generally “fried” images. But I think the original point here was about truth. Not just artistic truth, but factual truth. Its hard to draw the line between enhancement vs. alteration. It’s very hard to define a boundary that allows for some “cleaning up” of an image but somehow limits changes that would represent a true distortion of the scene.

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    • Bill Bentley

      It depends on the audience or client. We recently read where a photographer had his image disqualified from a UK National competition because he digitally removed a piece of straw from behind a mommy ape and her baby. One stalk of straw. We saw last year where a photojournalist was let go from AP (I think) because he removed a rock from a war image. These types of “clients and competitions” allow for minor dodging and burning, sharpening, etc. but not any type of “manipulation”. Galleries on the other hand have a completely different set of criteria. And then there’s social media, where anything goes………

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  14. Daniel Thullen

    Bill is absolutely right: “It is a fine line between pop and poop.” That said, there is room in the photographic world for both the “artist” and the “photographer.” I think the difference is that a “photographer” chronicles without interfering in the scene, the “artists” manipulate what is occurring. I would say much studio work falls more to the “art” side. The over manipulation of many photographs is just bad photographic editing regardless of whether it is “photographic” or “artistic” editing.

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  15. Bill Bentley

    There’s room for all types of genres and styles, but I agree that the poorly overdone HDR “style” images are among the most offensive. It’s often a fine line between pop and poop.

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