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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Truth and Perception

Unfairly the photograph is held to an esteem that it cannot uphold. That of truth. Of late there have been a few instances where the veracity of the image has come into question. The young photographer, Souvid Datta, has once more been caught in the crosshairs of negative opinion where an image of his has been found to have been staged, but depicted as reality. Earlier this year he found himself in hot water when it was shown that some award winning images of his had subjects cut and pasted from Mary Ellen Mark’s work. Then there is the practical hounding of veteran National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry and his heavy-handed use of photoshop in some of the images of his, as well as his apparent efforts to stage images in his famous coverage of India in the 1980s for National Geographic. Do we expect too much of photography, or should we rather adjust the way we see the medium?

For a start the photographer is not an automaton. She, or he, does not simply point the camera and capture images without her own perceptions. The very act of lifting the camera to eye, or even simply pressing the shutter has a goal in mind. Our internal bias guides how we see the subject, what to photograph, who to point the lens at. As a simple example, I have just spent the last few days shooting a launch event in Mozambique for a client of mine. Being a client of mine, the goal tends toward showing that client in a favorable light. There is no way that you could consider this objective journalism, although the images themselves do indeed end up in the media. Are these images truth?

Consider for a second ‘real’ journalism and the images that are attached to this venture. Despite the complaint by ours and many other countries’ governments, that journalists are hell-bent on regime change, or agents of a third force, journalists by and large are ardent supporters of democracy, and with that, transparent and good governance. They play an extraordinarily vital role in keeping tabs on people in power and the seemingly inevitable slide into corrupt practices. Now, as a photojournalist, when the people you are photographing are purportedly (or out-right guaranteed to be based on copious evidence) guilty of a crime, do you photograph them in a positive light? The photographer has an immense amount of power at her disposal in the way she photographs a person. Does she use the image where the politician is smiling and charming, or the one split second where he scowls (potentially at an unrelated matter…like a fly walking across his food - that’s the point; images can all too easily be taken out of context). As a human, a photographer is fallible; what she produces, although perceived as an accurate representation and the truth by her viewers, is really an interpretation of events as seen through the lens of her world view. It is not THE TRUTH is big bold capital letters. If anything, it is simply ‘a truth’, and one of many at that.

One of the most ambiguous and argued over lines in English poetry are the last two from Keat’s ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

One of the relatively accepted interpretations of the two lines is that art has the ability to communicate meaning and human experience better than other mediums (the suggestion through the poem is that it is better even than science in this respect). In some ways we can replace the urn with the the concept of the photograph, in the same way that it has been argued that the urn is a representation of poetry. The photograph gives us meaning and knowledge, but it is multuplicitous and paradoxical in it’s varied meaning through the different ways that we read it. It cannot exist in a vacuum because a photograph is created to be viewed. It hints of an unmediated truth and reality, but is really only a glimpse into a fleeting moment in time from the photographer’s point of view. Keats’ poem alludes to the ambiguity of the urn and what it represents: daily life of Ancient Greece forever frozen in a moment of the artist’s choosing, but also just an object that is pleasing to look at. The photograph is the same: a representation of something that has happened, without the context of what came before or after (arguably a video recording has more veracity than a still, but continues to be plagued by questions of agency, motivation and perception). The photograph is something we want to look at. Indeed, photographers take great pains to make sure that the image is worth looking at from an aesthetic point of view. Just that act of creation with an aesthetic in mind influences the way the image will be interpreted.

While thinking about this topic, an interesting video popped up in my social media feed. The video  (http://educateinspirechange.org/alternative-news/six-photographers-took-the-same-mans-picture-you-need-to-see-what-they-captured/) - which is well worth watching - covers an experiment where six photographers were asked to photograph the same man. However, in each sitting the man was introduced as a different person (the photographers were only aware of the one personae); a former convict, a billionaire businessman, a psychic, a reformed alcoholic etcetera. Each photographer attempted to get to the ‘essence’ of the person they were photographing, and as such created completely different images. The point of the experiment was to highlight how a photographer’s bias affects the image. The image ultimately is more about the photographer and their perceptions than of the person they are photographing (admittedly the subject in the video played the role of each of these ‘characters’ so there was intention to manipulate the photographers’ perceptions).

Surely this bias affects the way that photojournalists approach image making of their subjects. In the local South African news a rogues gallery of villains marches across our newspaper covers and glare broodingly from our computer screens. At what point do we step back and question the bias of the photographer? An international example would be none other than the sitting president of the United States. How many flattering images of him are actually published? Oh, and how quickly do the lenses of the media shift focus and bias? Think of some the images presented by a critical press of former FBI director James Comey during the period of the American elections, compared to those created by the same media when he was sacked by the current incumbent.

Photography is an imperfect medium to transmit any semblance of truth. Yet, it has the ability to transcend the here and now and speak more to a grander truth after all. Keats’ urn spoke to humanity. He was trying (I think) to say how art allows us a window into the human experience. It doesn’t create an accurate recording of a moment*, it gives us an interpretation and understanding of an experience. The confusion arises in photography in that unlike art, it can provide details. Like art, it can transcend those details and give us more meaning and understanding than if it were only details.

The problem then is not in the image. The photograph, as flawed a medium as it is, cannot be blamed for misconstruing its subject. A politician cannot rail at the photographer for never photographing him in a positive light (it is the viewer who reads the image ultimately, despite the photographer choosing the moment when to press the shutter). Rather, the viewer needs a broader awareness of the fallibility of the photograph. Maybe we need a more cynical set of glasses through which to view the world…and photographs.

* To be fair, scientific photography as opposed to that of people and places is a different kettle of fish entirely. At the same time though, images by Dr Harold Edgerton and the earlier images by Eadward Muybridge allow greater understanding of a topic - quite possibly the same thing that all photographs give us ultimately. 

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