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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Truth, Photographs, and the Media

I have beaten this little drum before, I think. As of this writing, though, we have yet another scandal about such and such a press photograph was allegedly faked in some as-yet undetermined fashion, etcetera and so forth. So, I feel like it's time for another round.

Photojournalism isn't. This discussion is at least 30 years old, and probably 30 years dead, but nobody seems to remember it. Some photo is shown to be manipulated to a greater or lesser extent. Shock and dismay is registered. The photographer and/or editor are duly pilloried and Media Standards For Photographic Manipulation are dutifully rolled out to remind us that the press adheres to strict rules to guarantee that only True Photographs will be shown to you. The system has worked, Untruth has been stamped out again. Phew!

This is all crap, designed to make the Media look honest, designed to bolster their fantasy of being purveyors of objective truth. It's simply not true.

Photojournalism isn't. It isn't journalism, that is. A photograph can show you What, and maybe hint at How. It leaves out Who, Where, When and the most important one of all, Why. Photos are, by their very definition, a frame around a tiny fraction of what it true at an instant in time, removed from all context and presented to us. Truth, and journalistic Truth in particular, is almost entirely about context. It's about how these things fit into the larger world, it's about why these things are happening.

A photograph feels like Truth, because it is a literal tracing of something that was actually there in front of the camera. In that sense, it is true. Media Standards For Manipulation are all about preserving this trivial and uninteresting truth. Essentially, you can't print a photograph in the press unless the stuff that appears to be in the photo was actually there. So what?

A photograph, by the its power of apparent Truth, is as likely to distort as to reveal. A photograph makes us believe it, so if it is lying to us, that lie has far more power than if someone simply wrote the lie down.

The press loves photographs for their power. Someone writes a piece about something or other, presumably striving to be Truthful. There's still a narrative there, one or more ideas are presented. So-and-so are a bunch of Bad Dudes, or something. Whether it's True or not, whether that even means anything, that's irrelevant to the current discussion. The point is, the photo editor or someone sorts through the available pictures and selects a picture to support the story. They select a picture, perhaps, of one of the so-and-so's, in which it appears that the dude is in fact being a Bad Dude. We read the story, or at least the first bit. We learn that we're supposed to think so-and-so are a bunch of Bad Dudes and, my goodness, here is proof! The newspaper has guaranteed us that this picture is of a genuine so-and-so, and that he is indeed Being A Bad Dude. The backs up the text, and gives us a much stronger impression that so-and-so are in fact a bunch of Bad Dudes. This despite the fact that the picture shows us one (1) so-and-so out of perhaps millions, in one instant of time, apparently being a Bad Dude. The photograph is not meaningful supporting evidence at all, but it certainly acts upon us as if it were.

You can lie with a crop just as easily as with an erasure. You can lie by choosing to run this photograph instead of that photograph as easily as with a crop.

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