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.