Who believes photographs?


Should we accept the oft-repeated view that nobody believes photographs anymore?

Skepticism about the veracity of images is widespread. In a recent interview with Art Info, Nan Goldin recalled:

I gave a talk at the Tate a couple of years ago, and I asked an audience of 200 people how many of them believed that photography was still a true statement. Five people raised their hands.

In his excellent new book, Believing is Seeing, Errol Morris writes:

Today, possibly because of Photoshop and other photography-doctoring software, people have become suspicious of photographs [p.45].

In Picture Perfect, her account of our photo-op culture, Kiku Adatto declares:

Now we are alive as never before to the artifice of images. Today we pride ourselves on our knowledge that the camera can lie, the pictures can be fabricated, packaged and manipulated [p.7].

And yet there are powerful counterpoints to these conventional claims of disbelief and suspicion.

One is anecdotal, but you might recognize something similar from your holidays. Driving around the Isle of Skye this summer, a regular hazard was the tourist, standing precariously on or near the road, holding a digital camera at arms length, capturing part of the stunning scenery, to presumably affirm their presence, make a record and invoke a memory and feeling. When I came across these tourists – and there were many each and every day – I contrasted it to the claims of distrust and wondered: why would so many of us make pictures if we believed all photography was a fraud?

Another counterpoint can be found in situations of upheaval. In a report on the capture of Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound one newly liberated citizen was quoted:

‘I’m taking photos to show to my brothers and family still in Tunisia,’ Salah Ermih explained, snapping the ransacked interior with his phone camera. Ermih, a surgeon, said that he had dashed from his overworked hospital to have a look at Gaddafi’s inner sanctum.

Ermih’s photography was pure documentary, recording scenes as evidence for others not present to see. He was not alone – the role of the phone camera (both still and video) in making the Arab Spring visible to those beyond the region has been widely noted.

What these counterpoints establish for me is the need for a more complex view, one that refuses a simple black or white rendering of the situation, and appreciates the co-existence of seemingly contradictory attitudes:

If one side of us appreciates, even celebrates, the image as an image, another side yearns for something more authentic. We still want the camera to fulfill its documentary promise, to provide us with insight, and to be a record of our lives and the world around us. But because we are so alive to the pose, we wrestle with the reality and artifice of image in a more self-conscious way than our forebears (Adatto, Picture Perfect, p.8).

We have to be alert to the artifice of the image and the inescapable place of aesthetics in photography. But we have to be careful in our analyses to avoid sweeping and fashionable claims. Recognising the capacity for manipulation does not mean abandoning the documentary promise. Everyday, amateur photographers with their vacation snaps understand this, and we should too.

Photo: Elgol, Isle of Skye, August 2011, from the Campbell family album.

16 replies on “Who believes photographs?”

[…] David Campbell raises the question about whether people still believe what they see in a photograph.In a world of advertising and multiple-media rich environments image is key and often needed to stand out in an overcrowded market place. As I progress through DPP I am learning more about how I can tweak reality to achieve an ideal image. Usually I take photos to remind me of places I’ve been to and times spent with friends and family. Therefore I want my images to replicate the true scene and so I would do minimal editing. However in my second assignment I did use Photoshop to construct images I wanted to communicate the message I had in mind. I am starting to envisage 2 types of photography, one for documenting and recording moments and the other for fine art and meanings. On the other hand why does photography cause such controversy? Does it matter that images are manipulated to satisfy and indulge their intended audience. Is it no different to someone embellishing the truth when writing in a newspaper or their biography. What about the artist who paints his or her own interpretation of what is in front of him? Is the finished picture any less if it is not an accurate representation? […]

Its interesting that the various references at top pertain to the belief in the possibility of being deceived by ‘photographs’, rather than by ‘photographers’. Photographs show precisely what they show. No more, no less. But its the story of what they show, as ‘related’ by, or understood (or misunderstood) by the photographer, or perceived by the viewer that is potentially riven with contradictions.

The counterpoint you offer, of tourists “standing precariously on or near the road, holding a digital camera at arms length, capturing part of the stunning scenery, to presumably affirm their presence, make a record and invoke a memory and feeling” is one I’d like to tease apart a little. It’s a good example in my opinion of an image captured that portrays ‘something’ but something that will vary with the viewer.

I live in this part of Scotland, and I work regularly in the place you’ve holidayed. I’ve seen numerous images presented of this area, and specific locations within it, in magazines, online and also in several landscape photographer’s books often labelled as ‘wilderness’ images, but where the scene is one I’m intimately acquainted with and know that it’s not any kind of ‘wilderness’ at all, but often right beside a main road. The wordy captions mention roaring stags and the wind sighing through the grass, but omits to mention the thunder of the fish lorries heading for Spain filled with crabs that pass 20 feet behind you. What was obviously important was not what was behind the photographer, but in front, and what that scene evoked at that moment.

The reality is that this apparently ’empty’ and ‘wild’ landscape is bound by many invisible threads. To the casual visitor it is a wilderness, an ‘epic’ landscape. To the ecologist it is a web of interconnecting but unseen life forms each shaping and influencing the other, and the landscape that supports them. To the hill walker the invisible contours of hill and glen mark safe routes and dangers depending on season. For the gaelic historian and elderly local resident it is a place of ghosts and stories, of lives lived and gone. To the stalker or estate manager it is a place known as intimately as the marks on a hand, each dip and rise a place of potential concealment in the stalking season. To the politician it marks a boundary between defeat and victory. To the bard or songwriter it is a place that informs their art with its truly ‘epic’ quality – that ‘storytelling’ of place that is so common in celtic culture. To the local resident it is simply ‘home’.

And if one adds the gaelic nomenclature a whole other complex web of understanding imposes itself across the scene, binding families to land, land to deed, or to something we can only guess at. So for example we have Achiltibuie in the north west, which is the phonetic pronunciation of achadh uillte buidhe, or ‘field of the yellow brook’, although the local tradition has it as achadh ghille buidhe – ‘field of the golden-haired lad’. And with the knowledge of this ‘history’ as imparted by the ‘language of place’ we may be enlightened about a feature, the brook, that we may not have noticed, or intrigued by the presence of a golden-haired lad, and who might he have been, and why was he here.

I think you hit the nail squarely on the head with: “What these counterpoints establish for me is the need for a more complex view, one that refuses a simple black or white rendering of the situation, and appreciates the co-existence of seemingly contradictory attitudes”

Photography for me is magical in that one photograph of landscape, a ‘simple’ tourist ‘snap’ (your word) is not one story, but many stories, richly overlaid in a web of promise, needing only some sense of where the edge of the pages may lie in order to gently turn them to gain understanding. In many respects that tourist ‘snap’ is profoundly honest in a way many other images are not, for it simply accepts what it sees, is a response to the immediate, but contains so much more than any one individual can possibly know. And therein lies the unfathomable, wonderful, depth of the still image.

“Recognising the capacity for manipulation does not mean abandoning the documentary promise. Everyday, amateur photographers with their vacation snaps understand this, and we should too.”

I thoroughly agree.

Nick, I think the problem starts when anybody says “photography is…” You may strive for narrative truth with your camera, but your efforts do not and should not define the limits of the medium. The fact that people use a camera to capture real life, constructed worlds, posed models, spray-tanned Big Macs, light abstractions, etc. is proof of the versatility of expression possible. For me, the “photography isn’t…” conversations are not as tired and silly as the “photography is…” conversations.

The discussion about the relationship between the photograph and the event or scene it portrays reminds me of the philosophical discussion about the existence of Free Will, theoretically it appears to be at the heart of issue but in day to day practice it is irrelevant. You can debate it over and over but ultimately never arrive at a practice changing conclusion.

Photographers working in the documentary tradition like myself constantly face this undermining attempt mostly from the community of artists that use photography as their medium. The argument has become tired and hackneyed and is regarded with the same weariness with which the Free Will debate is regarded in philosophy, it hasn’t moved on in 40 years.

It makes me smile when an artists statement talks about ‘questioning the role of the photograph as document’ or the ‘photograph being a new object ‘etc because these artists all have Facebook pages full of pictures of them speaking in galleries, drinking at openings or backpacking through South America.

As a street photographer I am working in the area of photography that aspires to the very least impact by the photographer on a scene, the crux of our work is that the resulting image is a record of something extraordinary but candidly observed, many street photographs are made without a preconceived intention and in many the act of photographing itself is revelatory.
We clearly hold a belief that there is a ‘strong’ connection between the resulting image and the scene observed.

Finally, there is, I believe, a wish to believe in photographs. When we see a wonderful photograph we are mesmerised by it because of the assumption we initially make that it is a document….how wonderful that that could happen and how even more wonderful that a photographer was both physically and mentally present to record it. This wonder is sharply contrasted with the disappointment at discovering the image is composited from several frames or is completely posed to look like reality. For me the best example of this was when I found out that Amy Steins ‘Domesticated’ series were created fictions, my admiration and wonder melted away.

The camera does something remarkable, it has a wonderful trick and 150 years after the invention of photography we remain mesmerised by it’s power to freeze reality, it’s the sweet spot of photography and the most rewarding place to work.

Thanks to Sara, Richard, Neil and Brad for these comments. My central point is that common claims about increasing skepticism in visual veracity are in part contradicted by everyday photographic practice, which still relies in large part on a commitment to a documentary ethos.

Where many commentators see distrust (as in the opening quotes), common usage puts issues of manipulation to one side. So my primary concern here is with how the claims about photography is, or is not, are made, rather than with the details of the capacity for manipulation (about which I’ve written lots previously and which is more frequent than anyone would like).

I think Richard is correct that corroboration is essential, and that comes in large part from outside the frame. In producing that frame, both Neil and Brad draw a tight contrast between the technology and the operator (Brad more than Neil). While I see the point, I wouldn’t separate people and things so starkly – to me, both are in a network, so agency and media impact on each other, and its not so easy to completely separate camera and image.

Neil’s question is an interesting one – why are critical claims about photography more common and strident than critical claims about writing, text or language? I’d be interested in people’s thoughts not that.

Trusting photography seems like a kind of category mistake. We can’t trust media. Only people are worthy of trust. We trust them to fake things well at the cinema. We trust them not to photoshop evidence. We trust them not to lie. Or we don’t. It depends who it is.

We also mistakenly tend to project the characteristics of the camera on the image. The camera is somewhat evidential. But the image is entirely up for manipulation, and the kinds of manipulation that are possible will continue to expand.

We need to think about agency separately from media; and in photography, separate the camera from the image.

As an aside, it seems a bit quaint discussing trust in photography in a cultural context where trust in institutions is in a long term decline, while digital media brings the possibility of transparency. Transparency is evidential. Transparency makes trust redundant. “Don’t ask me to trust you, show me the evidence!” Think of how WikiLeaks makes transparent how all governments routinely lie to their constituents, a habit from the mass media age, where we were simply forced to trust authority by virtue of not having any other options. But I digress…

Lucky you holidaying in Skye, I’m jealous. And, no, I have no doubt that your snaps provide me with proof that you were there. Why would you lie to me?

No one goes around saying that language lies. Why do they say photography lies?

Most people understand that there is a casual relationship between the image that forms on the film emulsion or the sensor of a digital camera. If no-one interferes with that emulsion or the resulting digital file, then we can be fairly sure that the image that results is a true representation of what was placed before the camera. This is just physics.

How the picture is interpreted or used is subject to people: making judgements, having memories, having ideas etc., and acting upon these. They may choose to manipulate the context or the image itself so as to change what would be the natural assumption about the image. But this just proves that people manipulate and lie. So what’s new?

Why people have become obsessed with trying to prove that we cannot believe photographs, I do not understand. My guess is that artists want to claim truth as their private domain and the idea that documentary photographers might be able to express the truth disturbs them. But that is just a guess!

The results of a pencil, or a typewriter or a chisel, in the right hands, can be truthful and so can the results of a camera. My inclination is usually to believe someone, or my eyes, unless I have reason to do otherwise. Yes, we can always doubt, but taking it too far just leads us into solipsism. Better to be positive and believe.

Photography, like writing, can be fictional or non-fictional, and those labels can sometimes be deliberately mis-applied. One can’t always judge from the work itself; sometimes corroboration from other sources is needed.

Photo manipulation (beyond simple dodging and burning – splicing different images together) is as old as photography itself, more or less. So the supposed distrust of a photograph as evidence isn’t based on this being a new phenomenon.

If there has been an increased distrust in the truth of photography (and I think that there has, but that this increased distrust has been primarily occurring among non-pohotographers, the people for whom photographs are solely for family albums and news reports), we have to ask why.

I’d argue that it’s because the means of manipulation have become more obvious to that particular group – instead of the darkroom being a magic space they never ventured to, preferring to get their images printed in a chemist, they now own the darkroom – photoshop, etc.

But then I don’t know why there seems to be a theoretical debate about the truth of photographs that has sprung up among the photo community in recent years – they ought to have been having that debate much earlier (and were).

I wouldn’t confuse the increased skepticism of the casual consumer with that of the photography ‘professional’ (for want of a better word). The skepticism of the consumer still has merit for debate, but point us to asking different questions than if the debate is more absolute.

I think we sometimes forget this.

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