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Telephoto fear: Japanese photojournalist shows how lenses affect views of crowds amid virus

Two photos taken from the same spot show Tokyo's Harajuku district on Jan. 21, 2021. The one on the left was shot with a 28-millimeter wide angle lens, and the one on the right with a 300-mm telephoto lens. In the left image, the distance between the people is obvious, but that sense of perspective is weak in the right image. However, the right image gives a good view of people's facial expressions, and how many of them are wearing masks. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

TOKYO -- One photography-specific term that has been flying around since the coronavirus pandemic took hold is "compression effect," also called "lens compression." In short, lens compression occurs when a telephoto lens is used to shoot large groups of people from a distance. Perspective is flattened, making the people look much closer together than they actually are. In the context of the pandemic, this has sparked accusations that photojournalists are "overproducing" or even "fabricating" the scenes they shoot.

    Everything in the photos is real, but the method a person uses to shoot even the same subject changes how people see it. So how should photojournalists represent crowds during the pandemic? As a news photographer, this question is a constant companion for me.

    A road lined with gingko trees in Tokyo's Showa Kinen Park, shot with a 400-millimeter telephoto lens on Nov. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

    In November 2020, I went to Showa Kinen Park straddling the western Tokyo cities of Tachikawa and Akishima to photograph the gingko trees in their full autumn glory. When I shot one leaf-covered road with a 400-millimeter telephoto lens, the leaves looked like they were overlapping, and all 98 trees on the 300-meter-long avenue were visible. But the people walking under the golden boughs looked very close together.

    When I took the same scene with a 24mm wide angle lens -- which exaggerates perspective -- the people looked more spread out, but the road and the tree trunks took up a larger chunk of the shot. I worried, "The telephoto lens shot has far more depth, so the park visitors look like they're having a good time. But what if people think they're crowded together?"

    The same road in Showa Kinen Park is pictured using a 24-millimeter wide angle lens, on Nov. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

    On this occasion, I used nine photos for a web-based article, so I was able to use both the telephoto and wide-angle shots. But when it comes to a print article for the newspaper, we can usually use just one photo. If I'd been asked to choose, I think I would have had a hard time.

    If you search for "compression effect corona" in Japanese on the internet, you'll discover a flood of criticism of newspaper and television images related to the pandemic, including allegations of "creating crowding," "lies," and "faked shots." The critiques appear to have started increasing last spring, during the first national state of emergency. Even public figures have joined in the condemnations. Reiko Matsushita, mayor of the western Japanese city of Musashino, tweeted on April 19, 2020, "I am angered by news reports using highly lens-compressed photos as though they told the whole story about Kichijoji," a Musashino neighborhood.

    Recently, an Asahi Shimbun newspaper photographer was attacked on Twitter and branded "compression man" for telephoto shots of rush-hour commuters at Tokyo's Shinagawa station. The photos were lambasted as "exaggerating" the crowding, "manipulative," and "stoking public anxiety." However, there is no proof that the photographer was deliberately seeking to create a distorted impression of the scene.

    Shooting crowds with a telephoto lens is standard procedure among photojournalists. I had never questioned the practice, because I thought it was intended to express crowdedness. And as far as I am aware, there had never been criticism of the technique before the pandemic.

    I think that the primary reason lens compression has become so suddenly controversial is widespread nervousness about crowds inspired by the coronavirus. Everyone wants accurate information, but the photos and videos in the news seem different from what people themselves see and experience out in the world. I understand that feeling, too.

    Single lens reflex cameras fitted with a 25-70 millimeter zoom lens, right, and a 400-millimeter telephoto lens, left. The camera in the middle is a compact digital camera with a 30x zoom lens, good for covering wide-angle shots in the 24- to 720-millimeter range. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

    I don't think us news photographers can keep using techniques we'd always taken for granted without talking about why we use them. We are in a time when we must try to shoot our subjects from multiple angles, and explain the effects lens compression and exaggerated perspective can have.

    Even then, though, one thing will not change: We cannot escape the subjective perspective of the photographer.

    On Dec. 26 last year, I headed to Ameyoko market in Tokyo's Ueno area intent on capturing the indefatigability of the shop owners there in the face of the pandemic. When I first arrived, I saw the people on the main avenue and thought, "Of course, this is Ameyoko. Even with the coronavirus, the end of the year brings out the shoppers."

    But when I ventured deeper into the market, there were startlingly few customers to be seen. Shop owners told me they would be forced out of business if things kept up as they were.

    The scene also changed over time. At one moment, the streets might be lively and crowded, but 10 minutes later, devoid of people. I was in Ameyoko for about seven hours that day. What I discovered was a harsh reality that was the opposite of what I had been expecting. According to the Ameyoko merchants' association, some 1.6 million people visited the market in the last five days of 2019. That dropped by half over the same period last year.

    People wearing masks walk along the main road in the Ameyoko market in Tokyo's Ueno area, shot at a focal length of 300 millimeters, on Dec. 26, 2020. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

    So where, when, and with what lens, should I take photos that best communicate this reality? I thought about this many times as I was reporting. If I had spent just a short time in Ameyoko shooting only the main avenue, that could very well have left a misleading impression. In the end, I put together a report for the Mainichi Shimbun's online edition with 15 photos.

    The controversy over lens compression in news photographs has not been limited to Japan. In September last year, Britain's The Guardian newspaper carried a story from Australia titled, "Picture imperfect: why photos of 'crowded' beaches may not be what they seem." One part of the article states, "Guardian photographer Mike Bowers uses a drone regularly in his photographic work and says pictures shot from the air more accurately represents how crowded a beach really is."

    Indeed, taking photos from above is an obvious way to capture crowd levels. But that photo will show just one slice of reality. And it remains up to the subjective choice of the photographer what bit of area to shoot and when.

    There were very few customers to be seen deeper into Ameyoko market, shot here at a focal length of 300 millimeters, on Dec. 26, 2020. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

    To completely banish subjectivity, perhaps the only option is to set up multiple surveillance cameras with 50mm lenses -- neither telephoto nor wide angle -- around spots where people congregate, and put the feeds online so that anyone can see the situation for themselves. There is a forerunner of this kind of system in Itami, Shizuoka Prefecture, where last summer, AI-controlled cameras took shots of the city's beaches to provide real-time updates on crowding levels.

    But journalists are not robots. And the keys to understanding all the issues related to the coronavirus go beyond crowding. The ratio of people wearing masks, people's ages and genders, the clothes they wear and the expressions on their faces, the suffering of shop owners; all these are relevant, too, and come into focus through the lens of the photojournalist.

    It is a reporter's job to scoop out facts from the infinite river of events that best represent the essence of reality, and communicate them to the reader or viewer. We are constantly faced with decisions on what to report and what not to. I, for one, humbly accept the problems with lens compression that have been pointed out, and will seek solutions everywhere I go to report.

    (Japanese original by Hiroshi Maruyama, Integrated Digital News Center)

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