Here is a link to New York Times photographer Damon Winter's photo series, "A Grunt's Life", which won the third place award in the Pictures of the Year International "Feature Picture Story - Newspaper" contest. No one seems to be questioning the quality of Winter's work; rather, there was been a stir of debate regarding the series' lack of objectivity in capturing the "reality" of the War in Afghanistan. Does the old school, discolored, oversaturated, plastic toy camera feel of the photographs, which was created through the Hipstamatic app on Winter's iPhone, detract from their validity?
Several critics argue "yes." According to their perspective, the overtly artistic nature of this series pushes the photographs out of the objective realm of "photojournalism" and into the subjective realm of "photography". Essentially, these critiques argue that in order to give the most truthful, accurate visualization of reality to the viewer, it is "photojournalists'" ethical responsibility to shoot unadulterated photographs. "Photographers", on the other hand, are free to use any artistic means necessary to produce their "view" of reality, but this should been seen as opinionated rather than unbiased work.
However, most critics view the series as both aesthetically powerful and credible. Ben Lowry, a professional conflict photographer, claimed, "Photojournalism is not just journalism, it is also photography. Our job is to capture content, but to also present it in an aesthetic way. To capture the audience's attention and deliver our message."
Damon Winter wrote a similar statement in response to the controversy over the "accuracy" of his photographs. Part of it reads, "We are being naïve if we think aesthetics do not play an important role in the way we as photojournalists tell a story. We are not walking photocopiers. We are storytellers. We observe, we chose moments, we frame little slices or our world with our viewfinders, we even decide how much or how little light will illuminate our subjects, and yes we choose what equipment to use and through all of these decisions, we shape the way a story is told."
The truth is that no one will ever be able to discover the truth. We, the audience, view images, in this case, of the daily lives of soldiers in northern Afghanistan, from the comforts of our homes or offices. We have to conjecture what war must be like based on extremely limited information. Moving up a level of reality, the photographer, Damon Winter, is on a temporary assignment covering the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the 10th Mountain Division. Winter sees much of what the soldiers see, but doesn't fully engage in these sights, doesn't fully feel the emotions of the soldiers. He hasn't gone through the endless hours of training, bonding, and battles these men have experienced, and thus doesn't view each physical scene the same way soldiers do. His photographs can only go so far in the quest to accurately display reality. Aside from the fact that his photos contain color alternation, oversaturation, and vignetting, one must also account for the often overlooked fact that photojournalists have to choose what to shoot. Their decisions of which images to include which to exclude invariably alter the audience's understanding of reality. One might think that the subjects of his photographs, American soldiers, truly understand the war. But they only know their own reality. They are ignorant of the reality of their enemies, and visa versa. The truth is that every person has his or her own interpretation of reality. And that is exactly what a photograph is - an interpretation of reality.
War is often portrayed in a glorified context, but Winter successfully captures a more complete, and yes, maybe more "realistic" take on war. His series ranges from tense moments awaiting potential gunfire to the flood of relief after heavy fire as a soldier sprawls out on the ground to smoke a cigarette, and everything in between, including the companionship of soldiers sharing earbuds to listen to an iPod, the unsexy truth that the soldiers must sleep on the floor of a stable bundled together for body heat, and the rarely shown down time of war, during which soldiers enjoy the little things - jumping on a broken bed frame as if it were a trampoline, spitting chewless tobacco, and joking around. Winter deserves praise for his photographs' glimpse into soldiers' multidimensional war experiences.
A complete version of Winter's series can be found here.