“A photograph is not a moment; it is a single representation of a moment, influenced entirely by the eye behind the lens.”
A Trick of the Light
Exploring Truth in Photography
A photograph comes with authority. Photography uses a machine to capture scenes from the physical world, and so we trust in photographs to convey what has actually happened. Photographs make up a historic visual archive, but how much of this produced history is truthful? A photograph is not a moment; it is a single representation of a moment, influenced entirely by the eye behind the lens. Because of this eye, a photographer, who has choices, what remains outside the frame, unrecorded, is a mystery. A photographer is an artist – his emotions, opinions, thoughts, and ideas guide him through the process of capturing scenes. One interpretation of a complex scene is presented, and a photograph, therefore, needs to be evaluated as just that: one-take on a scene with infinite possibilities for interpretation. It is this discrepancy between a captured scene and the broader actual scene that creates an opportunity for selective framing and perhaps a corruption of truth.
The ability to capture a moment, forever frozen in time, is a gift. In “What’s Special About Photography,” by Ted Cohen, the distinctive aspects of photography, both positive and negative, are deeply explored. Photography offers a “look into the world’s past” (81), but how this history is portrayed is somewhat up to the photographer, the artist. A photograph has the semblance of truth, Cohen argues, but what remains outside the frame is often unbeknownst to the viewer. When presented with a single frame, one is quick to assume that the scene has been accurately, truthfully represented. How can an image of a realistic scene be dishonest? Ashley Michele Scarlett, a Master’s candidate at Queen’s University, explains the logic behind believing that all photography is truthful: “Because the photographic image was deemed inseparable from the referent, it became, for all intents and purposes, inseparable from the nature of truth; it became the preferred tool for objectively exposing and relaying scientific truth” (18). One is taught by societal standards to believe in everything one sees and hears, for what is considered to be empirical should automatically be equated to be honest. This is not the case.
The nature of truth is questionable. There is a moment that occurs between the scene and the capturing of the scene. The transformation from reality, a raw scene, to one interpretation of that scene, as cast through a single frame, must be considered when evaluating a photograph. To put it into context, a photograph has components similar to a fossil; “It is there in the photograph because Uncle Fritz was there in the waves” (Cohen 80). But how the photographer chooses to portray Uncle Fritz—perhaps by shooting from a unique angle, maybe capturing him in a moment of laughter, as opposed to anger—does not necessarily communicate a truthful representation of a moment, and in this way it differs from a fossil. Regardless, a photograph tells a story; whether that story is representative of the truth is fully up to he who takes the photograph.
A story allows the one who has experienced it to step away with a new perspective, thought, idea, or changed opinion. Just as a written novel does, a photograph has the same power to deliver a strong message. As Scarlett observes, “Photographs have arguably become a ubiquitous feature within the fabric of past and contemporary visual landscapes as they circulate as commodities, memories, information and documentation within newspapers, art galleries, magazines, advertising spreads, and photo albums (just to name a few)” (2). Photographs have woven together history, offering a supposedly comprehensive view into the past. A photo of a young girl sitting on her father’s lap has the potential to communicate infinite themes, unique to the relationship formed between the viewer and the image. It is essential to consider details of the story that may have been left out, purposely or by mistake. Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide uses the term “language of photography” to describe a photographer’s influence on his work given who he is and what he has learned (121). One who chooses to gather information or form opinions based off of an image must be aware of this language. Many complex aspects—subjects and causation, emotions and connections, among other things—must be considered when determining the validity of the story told through the lens.
A person in a photograph has a purpose in the scene. The relationship between a subject and causation is a topic Cohen analyzes extensively. It is common to assume that a photograph resembles its subject in an accurate light, therefore assuming direct causation. Cohen draws attention to the other side of this argument: “If we find parents in their adopted children, or subjects in non-photographic pictures, we attribute this to artifice. If we find them in natural children or photographs, we attribute this to nature” (80). However, we often fail to question this root of assumed direct causation; we fail to address the person behind the camera. The person behind the camera is not only influenced by their own morals and values, but also potentially by those of the subject. “Photographs were believed to reveal the inner character of their subject matter, causing many individuals to go to great lengths to ensure that their images reflected a favorable impression” (Scarlett 36). Because a photograph presents a story, a history, a dialogue, the photographer and the subject will go to great lengths to encourage perception in a very precise manner.
While there is usually some degree of interaction between a photographer and his subject, there is also an essence of voyeurism in photography. A photographer looks through a lens, watching his subject before taking a photograph, noticing their every move. In her article “The Ethic of the Spectator: The Citizenry of Photography,” Ariella Azoulay states that the world is a picture. This broad claim is expanded upon in the sense that everything and everyone has the potential to become a photograph, and “most often, the encounter with photography does not require explicit consent from its users” (39). When one takes a photograph of a busy city street, the subjects of the photograph, pedestrians, are unknowingly being featured in an image. Photographers often self-assign and assume a level of trust and freedom that may not be present. People are being watched and they are not even aware. Alissa Sue Longo’s thesis, “Beyond Ethics: Voyeurism in Contemporary Photography” further argues that there is a violation of privacy and ethics in photography:
The photographer watches, captures specific moments in time with his or her camera, and delivers the visual information to the viewer. The photographer is the ultimate voyeur, who remains behind the lens of their camera detached and alienated from their subjects and environments as they seek to record life unravelling around them (6).
While not all photographers and their subjects have this direct lack of communication and trust, Longo raises important points, especially relevant to the setting of the digital age. Modern technology and convenience has altered and even furthered concerns regarding truth and representation in photography. In an article titled, “In Defence of Digital Photography,” Greg McMillan evaluates the progression of photography, with a focus on the introduction of digital technology. With the inclusion of cameras in mobile devices comes extensive ease for the photographer, and with that, a sense of entitlement. The influence and power that a photographer possesses is remarkable; the ability to share images that have the potential to not only reach, but impact and influence millions of people. McMillan acknowledges that photographic technology has changed, but he points out that “The science of light passing through a lens and how the lens works with the marriage of aperture and shutter speed is the same as it was in the beginning. It is still photography” (1). If the science of photography remains unchanged, then what has changed to drive the ethics of photography to a new limit? In the twenty-first century, photography is associated with limitless boundaries, given a photographer’s ethical and moral obligations within a world full of pictures yet to be taken. In this setting, photographers sometimes behave as though, unless explicitly forbidden, they have the right to photograph anything and everything they encounter. As Scarlett contends, “The photograph’s ability to establish truths, subjectify individuals, and perpetuate discourses of oppression and trauma has resulted in an urgent demand for the development of a series of ethical criteria concerning photography and the photographic image” (128). The ethical implications behind photography demand to be evaluated.
The topic of ethics and privacy in relation to photographers and their work drives numerous philosophical questions: What is truth? What is deception? How does false representation affect interpretation? Truth is reality, it is factual, and it is necessary. While truth is somewhat subjective, depending on the perspective of the person judging the criteria of the depicted situation, there is a universal understanding that the truth is honest. Deception occurs when the truth is warped. Misrepresentation, often occurring in photography, is a form of deception, as it alters a portrayed scene. Truth and deception inherently interact in photography, as photographers push boundaries corrupting the truth, simultaneously attempting to lessen the perception of this illustrative deception. The problem lies within the ambiguity of these terms. No one person has the same definition of truth as the other. Universal truth can be strived for, but remains unrealistic. Instead, what can and should be examined is the avoidance of misrepresentation, which causes warped perception, analysis, and thoughts, opinions, and emotions based upon falsification.
A picture is thought to convey a realistic image, an image of what actually occurred, and so the photograph is a testament to history. This is not the case; photography will never be one hundred percent realistic, nor will it ever be one hundred percent deceptive. Longo asserts:
“Objectivity in photography is not possible. Just like the painter or sculptor, the photographer picks and chooses the moment, the angle, and the content. The photographer selects the images that best suits his or her agenda or aesthetic preference. Every project is colored by the artist’s perception of the subject matter and what story they are trying to tell with it” (11).
One photographer’s version of truth may be another photographer’s version of deception. An example of the aforementioned representation of truth versus deception can be illustrated with Sebastian Rich’s photograph, Girl in DRC Refugee Camp Smiles, which was published by ABC News in April of 2016. In the photograph, a young Congolese girl’s smiling face fills the frame. Her pearly white teeth offset the darkness of not only her skin, but the presence of political turmoil behind her. The girl is clearly happy, the smile unmistakeable for pure joy. Beauty radiates from the scene, making the viewer feel a connection to the young subject. What is going on behind the girl remains unknown, valuable context removed from the image. The title situates the subject in a refugee camp in a country that has been marked by decades of civil war. Behind the girl is context, a story, a history; completely necessary information to depict the whole truth. This image has not raised controversy, nor was it featured in the media for being untruthful. Nonetheless, this picture is misrepresenting a scene. In the caption that follows, The Democratic Republic of Congo is cited as “the most dangerous place for a woman to be” at the time of the photograph (Rich). A young girl smiling looks at the camera. What kind of truth does this photograph convey? How does it capture history? It does not do so in a fully honest manner; this is where the issue in ethics, truth, and operator intentions lies within the realm of photography. But can any image wholly depict the truth?
What can be concluded is that truth is subjective, and in photography, truth is determined and depicted by the photographer. Like any other person, a photographer has morals, values, thoughts, ideas, etc. that guide his work, and ultimately guide his portrayal of a scene to be shared with others. With this known, what are potential solutions to offer for issues of misrepresentation and the aftermath? Reporter Wei Wei interviews American photographer Vicki Goldberg in the article “How Ordinary People Keep Modern Photographers Honest.” Goldberg suggests that if the public is questioning whether an image depicts the truth, it is up to them to take action. To keep photography honest, it is up to the viewers, it is up to the subjects, and it is up to the photographers.
Photography is a special gift, and it is necessary in order to preserve history, tell stories, communicate messages, and spark conversation and evaluation. What must be remembered is that a photographer has the potential to exploit his opportunity to influence. Simply put, people trust photographers; “One has faith in photographs . . . [and] it can be misplaced” (Cohen 81). The goal of photography should be to inform in an honest manner, not deceive to enhance aesthetic properties. While “truth” remains a vague term, the public must do its best to be conversant in the language of photography, becoming educated and informed as to what deception looks like as an image. Who is behind the camera? What are his morals, values, and intentions? What is going on outside of the frame? Photographs do not prove anything in full; it is the photographer that controls and proves everything.
Azoulay, Ariella. “The Ethic of the Spectator: The Citizenry of Photography.” Afterimage 33.2 (2005): 38-44. ProQuest. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.
Cohen, Ted. “What’s Special About Photography?” AESTHETICS: A Reader in the Philosophy of the Arts. By David Goldblatt. New York: Routledge, 2016. 79-84. Print.
Iturbide, Graciela. “Interpreting Reality.” World Literature Today 87.2 (2013): 118-21. JSTOR. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.
Longo, Alissa Sue. “Beyond Ethics: Voyeurism in Contemporary Photography.” UMI (2014). Q. Web. 2 May 2017.
McMillan, Greg. “In Defence of Digital Photography” Sun Times: A4. Sep 03 2004. ProQuest. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.
Rich, Sebastian. “Girl in DRC Refugee Camp.” ABC News. ABC, 25 Apr. 2016. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.
Scarlett, Ashley Michele. “Remediating Photography Re-imagining Ethics In-light of Online Photo-sharing Practices.” Ottawa: Library and Archives Canada Bibliothéque Et Archives Canada, 2011. Print.
Wei, Wei. “How Ordinary People Keep Modern Photographers Honest.” China Daily, North American ed. ed.: 8. Jan 15 2007. ProQuest. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.