Converting to black and white…

I shot these pictures yesterday at a refugee camp that was hit by a horrible fire. More than 5000 people lost their homes again – a third of camp’s population. They all came from Myanmar and many spent decades here in the hills,  just across the border with Thailand.

The whole scene was extremely sad although people were very cool if looked from outside – I guess they know how to process the anger and fury after so many years of horror. No matter how many time I see similar, I’m always impressed by their calmness and ability to start recovering immediately.

Pictures were strong, they told the story in details and in color of the place. But, what have I done after, probably very inappropriate in given situation, is a little test – I converted images in black and white. Why? Just to see the result and reactions. It is the other people’s tragedy that is, beside the fine art, often portrayed in black and white.

I took the whole take and treated it as if I never seen pictures before, as if someone else photographed and gave them to me for edit. To enter a competition, let’s say. And I converted images pretty aggressively into black and white using orange filter that makes sky darker and faces lighter. I also added some contrast and few other small things emulating film but did not do any dodging or burning. Basically, only what would be “acceptable” in the industry.

To edit in black and white, just like shooting, is different experience – what we see in color world may not look equally good in black and white. It can be very often messier, too busy and confusing. No wonder, the final edit sometimes looks different.

Do I like what I see? I don’t know. I’m sure there will be some people saying black and white even works better, giving it timeless note and emphasizing what is important, cutting the colors out. No colors – does it bother you as it bothers me or it is only because I know the original?

I don’t show the color versions here as you would not see them if this is published.

This is all in theory as I would never do such a thing for what I do in my life the best – documenting events for a news agency without interfering much. This exist only as an exercise for something I’m trying to explore – why and when people convert into black and white? And does it really, and when, make sense?

All comments are welcomed. With this, I’m hoping to have a conversation started (with others but with myself, too) without really looking for big answers and conclusions. Just to hear other people’s reasons, different but probably all valid, for shooting and converting to black and white.

Please, look at more picture from the Umpiem refugee camp here. 

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  1. from a documentary, sociological etc. point of view: colour is an important information as part of what we document, there is no reason why this information should not be given to the audience. secondly, the world isn’t black and white (only at night sometimes maybe, but not even then), why should we transform it into black and white (and not red and green?). aren’t colours a wonderful part of our world, imagine we lived in a black and white world, wouldn’t that be sad? (needless to say, i never liked black and white.)

    • I agree with you, Uta – especially for the documentary photography. But, then we would have to define very narrowly documentary photography – is that something close to forensic photography where every little technical thing can change perspective. Everything – what lens, what f stop, what angle, light, film, ISO etc… What do we do with these things? The world is not all in focus or seen through f 1.2.

      Or the author can put himself in between pure facts and public by presenting it in a way he thinks it’s appropriate? And let the audience, based on his reputation trust the report or not.

      (the power of visual rhetoric and all that comes with it is next big issue, then)

      Also, there are several very valid points photographers I interview use to justify conversion or use of black and white. One of reasons is – if in color it would not be distributed or printed because it does not have visual strength.

      So, the question would be – will you preserve the color even if that means less or no chances pictures will be printed?

      ps… I’m trying to be a devils advocate here to have conversation going in different directions before we could possibly narrow it 😉

  2. indeed the black and white works well on a place where black is the dominant color, indeed it makes it all more dramatic, but I agree with Uta, colors are an important information
    Also, I would have add a panoramic photo of the whole burned down hill, to give readers a overview of how big was the disaster
    Very nice pix overall, they really give a sense of the brutal life conditions those refugees are living in and black and white helps in this sense

    • Dario, I agree with need of panoramic photo here. I did not include my best panoramic shot as it’s super busy and messy in black and white. The color version works just fine (front of today’s Bangkok Post) but black and white does not. Unless you print it huge and that, to be realistic, will never happen on this story 😉

      But, in general I agree about importance of a classic general view in such a 12 pictures story no matter color or black and white.

      How is presented should not have so much influence in editing.

    • Simon Bates
    • February 26th, 2012

    Nice images Damir. I think colour photography can sometime be a little distracting. It tends to focus on the moment. While black and white does not have the added dimension/information of colour, it does have its own dimension, and that can transcend the moment.

    • Simon… color photography can be very distracting! And disturbing. Not only for the photo itself (focusing on important!) but also for the audience and editors know that well. BW is “perfect” to portray pain and suffering of others – it is so distant, historical and almost fictional that one would feel not so disturbed by the reality color brings. The blood printed on glossy paper would never look the same in color or in BW. Or on someone’s wall. BW is happening to others, especially if it’s grainy and dark, outside our color world. So not true but easier to consume it that way.

      So, there are many reasons why (conflict, for example) photographers and their editors use black and white. It take some serious courage to use blood and suffering big in mainstream media – is one of the reasons for sure.

      It is all one big market, we should not forget.

  3. Hi Damir as someone who prefers to shoot in black and white I like your images and the subject matter is very dramatic.

    I do take issue with one thing and that’s conversion to black and white and the concept of images working better. I know its become the standard to shoot in colour and convert and I see that as too dramatic a shift from the original.

    Of course the world at large doesn’t know the image started out in colour in the way that it doesn’t know how much adjustment has been applied but for me I need to maintain integrity and shoot in black and white. I do that by using the cameras black and white setting and then JPEG and RAW.

    I did some work recently with my old OM1n and HP5 and loved it with film offering different and better qualities than digital.

    And so interesting subject here but personally I have never and I mean never taken a colour shot as a colour shot and then thought wonder if that would look better in black and white.

    When I shoot b+w I do it in the mind set of thats what I intend to do and never change my mind and think I’ll just switch to colour because that will look better.

    • Graham… I think problem with shooting color and converting is more of a “technical” problem. A problem of too many possibilities. Too many possibilities can be very dangerous sometimes – you end up nowhere.

      That is why it makes sense to turn you camera on BW only as you are saying, although it is never BW in RAW but at least your mind and screen is set so.

      Or to just shoot color, as I do, and then if the story develops in the way that smells BW maybe have few frames shot in purpose to be later converted to BW. Dramatic sky (orange filter), big eyes, wrinkled skin, dirty hands, landscape…

      In the same time, by shooting BW film only you limit yourself in the market. There are some serious and expensive photographers who are fantastic in shooting digital and then having two different sets of pictures out of the same take for sale.

      It is crazy new world in which only good is not good enough any more. Market is shrinking and less is more principle works only with very, very few people in business. And that is because of their reputation and not always because of the quality of (BW) work.

  4. Okay, so, photography is an interpretation of the world, but surely there are contexts in which it’s less appropriate to remind the viewer about this quality? I feel that when I read reports that are in the news section of the paper I don’t want to be reminded that they are an interpretation of things; I want to feel that the priority of the article has been about establishing the facts and not about reminding us of the hand that has written them.

    I feel that using BW in our colour infused world reminds the viewer of the artist behind the images because BW shows a preference for seeing things in a way that we don’t normally see, photographically speaking, any longer. Whilst interpreting events is neither good nor bad, there are contexts in which the author’s preference is desired to be hidden; our news industry is surely one of those places?

  5. Obviously your images are striking, but it feels like they should be in colour basically!

  6. Max Colson :

    Obviously your images are striking, but it feels like they should be in colour basically!

    Max… these pictures are in color and they were sent to clients and widely used in color. I converted them to BW for the test and this discussion only.

    I hear your point about the artist, or author, positioning him/herself aggressively in between reality and audience. But, is he not the one who is chosen not only to report but also to give comments, opinion? He has name and authority that go with his work; he’s got newspapers or agency or magazine that also has name and reputation behind those images, color or BW.

    So, it is not just color vs BW – it is also who brings those images, who stands behind them. If it’s someone that you never heard of in papers or web site you don’t know – that could be a disadvantage. But, if it’s Luc Delahaye or Ron Haviv or any other author well known for his integrity then you do not take only those pictures into consideration but also their reputation that comes with it. They know their responsibilities.

    In the same time big name does not mean titanium integrity – there are people in journalism known for lack of it. This is why the role of editors in agencies or magazines is also very important.

    On the other side – you say the priority in papers is to establish facts and not to give comments. Well, that is in theory only and it is changing rapidly. The moment you have your papers or magazine delivered to you (day after or next week) you have most probably already heard about the news and seen images. There are services that are much faster than papers and nothing can stop them – TV, all the social networks and the net in general.

    Is that good or not – we can discuss – but, that is the reality that people who make and sell papers know. So, for them to survive is not good enough to establish facts – they have to comment it, put it in wider context, report in-depth and analyze. That does not work without reminding us on the hand of the author.

    Take a look the way papers and news magazines are changing and you’ll see it is obvious what I’m saying.

    Who remains to establish facts are news agencies, like the one I work for. And that is one of the reasons I would never offer pictures from a news assignment in BW. I also try to minimize the other techniques that make photos aggressive and more artificial. There is a fine balance that we have to find here but that goes bit away from this discussion on BW vs color.

  7. so, pictures of suffering of *other* people should be shown in BW, so that the readership in their armchairs at home isn’t disturbed too much by blood being actually red and not grey? oh dear.

    transforming the world (and its pictures) into BW in order to sell them better, does not differ from any other transformation and manipulation in order to sell more. that is up to the conscience of the photographer, how far the manipulation should go. but i would say, i does start with BW, simply because the world isn’t BW.

    leaving all those photo manipulations the photographer might choose (in order to sell more, be more dramatic etc.) aside, the next and maybe even more interesting question is what we choose to take photos of, what we direct peoples’ eyes towards, and what not. what do we choose, consciously and subconsciously, and maybe more interesting: who knows, maybe it’s the other way round, the subjects choose us, how can we know it’s *real* what we think is there, maybe the woman in the chador was placed there for the press just before samuel aranda arrived, did they put the poster in north korea there *just* for you to photograph it? which effect does our presence have on the subjects? etc. sorry if i’m running off the track, but i ask myself these questions a lot lately. where do the manipulations start, who manipulates who?

  8. No sorry i wasn’t clear with my terms – by ‘news’ i just meant straight news reporting rather than comment and analysis…Obviously newspapers and columnists, photographers can also have a point of view, but in the ‘comment’ section..

    I think I might have missed the point of your post slightly, but on reading the rest of the responses properly I’d be more inclined to go with Uta’s views…

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