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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Truth and Photojounalism

There's been a few minor scandals lately (and, honestly, there's always been a few lately) about journalistic pictures being faked, or wrong, or accompanied by lies. Recently I ran across a little discussion about a fellow who was photographed with one of his guns in his own garage. He was described in a caption as a former Marine Sniper, living in some seedy district of Rochester, NY.

Turns out most of the caption was wrong, and there are issues with the way the picture was taken and so on and so forth. A lot of irrelevant stuff. The interesting point for me was the suggestion that there may have been a language problem. The photographer is European, and presumably has English as, at best, a second language. The photographer may have mis-remembered some details.

The minutiae don't matter. What does matter here is that part of the problem stems, or appears to have stemmed, from what is really a cultural divide. The cultural divide between Western Europe and Rochester, NY is not very wide, but it's there.

Consider now the problem of western journalists parachuting in to, say, Arab nations and taking some pictures.

In fact, let's consider a hypothetical space alien visiting our planet. In the course of an intensive 8 weeks or so, this alien learns much about humanity, including that the bared-teeth expression with the corners of the mouth curled up, is an expression of amity and happiness. On the last day, this alien takes a snapshot of two boys in the street, smiling at one another, accompanied by hand genstures featuring a raised middle finger. The alien captions this "two male human youths enjoying a pleasant social moment".

A western journalist in Egypt isn't a space alien, but he's probably missing some cultural cues. We, western viewers of that journalist's pictures, are probably missing a lot more of them. Even if the journalist is honestly doing his or her best to accurately and fairly portray some situation, the probability of being able to do this well is very low. When you toss in editors with political agendas, the situation gets worse.

We ascribe too much weight of truth to photographs.

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