20 January 2020
There is something about a photograph. Unlike a painting, which is obviously man-made, a photograph by its nature is “nature reproducing herself” (Louis Daguerre). Oliver Wendell Holmes thought that truth should be as much inherent in God’s photography as it is in his other works. In this short discussion I am going to look at what we mean by the truth, what truth can mean in photographic terms (in particular documentary photography) and the ethical issues surrounding the subject.
According the Oxford Dictionaries online:
Definition of truth
noun (plural truths /truːðz, truːθs/)
· the quality or state of being true:
Definition of true
adjective (truer, truest)
1 in accordance with fact or reality:
2 accurate or exact
A witness in court swears to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Without wishing to go too deeply into concepts of absolute truth, when talking about the whole truth I am reminded of the story of the blind men and the elephant:
Once upon a time, five blind men came upon an elephant.
"What is this?!" asked the first one, who had run headlong into its side.
"It’s an Elephant." said the elephant’s keeper, who was sitting on a stool, cleaning the elephant’s harness.
"Wow! So this is an Elephant! I’ve always wondered what Elephants are like!" said the man, running his hands as far as he could reach up and down the elephant’s side. "Why, it’s just like a wall! A large, warm wall!"
"What do you mean, a wall?" said the second man, wrapping his arms around the elephant’s leg. "This is nothing like a wall. You can’t reach around a wall! This is more like a pillar. Yeah, that’s it! An Elephant is exactly like a pillar!"
"A pillar? Strange kind of pillar!" said the third man, stroking the elephant’s trunk. "It’s too thin, for one thing, and it’s too flexible for another. If you think this is a pillar, I don’t want to go to your house! This is more like a snake. See, it’s wrapping around my arm! An Elephant is just like a snake!"
"Snakes don’t have hair!" said the fourth man in disgust, pulling the elephant’s tail. "You are closer than the others, but I’m surprised that you missed the hair. This isn’t a snake, it’s a rope. Elephants are exactly like ropes."
"I don’t know what you guys are on!" the fifth man cried, waving the elephant’s ear back and forth. "It’s as large as a wall, all right, but thin as a leaf, and no more flexible than any piece of cloth this size should be. I don’t know what’s wrong with all of you, but no one except a complete idiot could mistake an Elephant for anything except a sail!!!"
And as the elephant stepped aside, they tramped off down the road, arguing more loudly and violently as they went, each sure that he, and he alone, was right; and all the others were wrong.
The Elephant keeper sighed, and went back to polishing the harness, while the elephant winked solemnly at him
This story has its roots in an old Indian poem and it calls into question the concept of the “whole truth”. It points out very succinctly how we can only tell the truth as we see it from our own perspective. Each of the blind men was telling the truth as he understood it and they all thought they had the whole truth and argued accordingly. Yet each told just part of the story and even assembled together, the whole was not described.
When we see a photograph, we do not see reality, we see a flat representation of it bounded by the edges of the image. The photographer has made a selection when he framed the piece; he decided what to include and what to leave out, he decided what part of the elephant to show us. We see the part of the truth that the photographer wants us to see.
If the picture does not show us the whole truth, does it portray nothing but the truth. Consider the Boy with the Toy Grenade by Dianne Arbus.
We see a skinny child, one of his straps is hanging off his shoulder, his face carries a distorted expression, his hands are held in a tense grip. This picture is untouched, it’s obviously true. It’s obviously a picture of a child showing some kind of distress or derangement. Or is it? Here is the contact sheet where this picture came from:
Apart from the one, now famous image, and another family scene, there are ten pictures of a happy, normal young boy. The one the artist wanted us to see is just one aspect of this boy’s personality.
Perhaps Dianne Arbus never intended to show us the whole truth and nothing but the truth, perhaps the misrepresentation lies with the viewer in assuming that Daguerre was right, that the photograph can only be a true portrayal.
To consider the situation with documentary photography, we need to start with a definition of documentary. Again, referring to the Oxford dictionary:
Definition of documentary
1 consisting of or based on official documents: documentary evidence of regular payments from the company
2 using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual report on a particular subject: a documentary programme about Manchester United
Definition 2 places a clear responsibility on the documentary photographer to “provide a factual report”.
One of the great feats of documentary photography was the Farm Security Administration’s cataloguing of the depression in 1930’s America. An enduring image of this collection is this one from Dorothea Lange:
A desperate mother, a sickly child, a family losing their dignity in the struggle for survival. Another one in the same series was taken after the father took a damp towel and cleaned his child’s face, specially for the photographer:
Which of these is the “factual report”? John Edwin Mason claims that between them the photographer and the father created a lie. Did they? Isn’t it natural for the father to want to show the world that his family is happy and clean despite their hardships; a triumph over adversity? Dignity not lost but maintained. Surely both pictures represent parts of the truth but it is the former that helps tell the story the FSA wanted; it is the former that triggers the emotional response in the viewer. “Perception is reality,” American political consultant Lee Atwater is reported to have said, a conception the FSA exploited to show this family how they wanted them to be perceived.
James Curtis’ essay “Making Sense of Documentary Photography” contains other examples of this selection process. He also points out some early examples of more blatant image manipulation. For this picture by Alexander Gardner of the American civil war, he had the body dragged forty yards to get the picture he wanted.
William Henry Jackson had to wait for the spring thaw before he could get his bulky camera equipment into position for this 1873 picture of the Mount of the Holy Cross. Unfortunately, by this time one of the arms of the cross had melted. He replaced it in the darkroom later!
More blatant still, yet not claiming to be documentary photography is this seagull by Bill Brandt. In the first picture, the seagull was added to the image of London docks in the fog. Later, Brandt made a second version, reversing the image and adding the sun.
This historical context illustrates two ideas. Firstly. image manipulation is not new and is not an invention of Photoshop. The software is responsible for making it easier and putting it into the hands of more photographers but it has been going on since the dawn of photography. Secondly, I think it shows that what the photographer needs to be aware of is not how he manipulates his images, but how his images manipulate the viewer. It is natural and right to use pictures to tell a story and the story being told needs to be truthful. However, the story being told can only be part of the truth, just as it was beyond the skill of the blind men to be able to describe the whole animal individually. The storyteller needs to be aware of this and this should be the guiding foundation for his ethical standards.
Equally the viewer needs to aware that he is only seeing the part of the truth the photographer intends him to see. Part of the burden of responsibility of faithful imaging lies in how the viewer sees and interprets the picture.