Monday, September 9, 2013

Truth and Photographs

In my ongoing quest to grasp how we think about photographs, I have devised the following thought experiment:

You visit a gallery, online or in a venue. It doesn't matter. You view a portfolio of serious black and white work, perhaps photographs of people. Each photograph has a title and a lengthy caption that fills in the story. Taken as a whole, the portfolio teaches, it reveals, it makes you feel, it connects you to something bigger. Universal truths are more open to you now than before. It's not news, it's not a documentary essay, it's not depicting important Things or Happenings. It's more universal and abstract, but it is mighty. It is powerful, profound, and it moves you.

At the end of the gallery, you learn that the portfolio is a work of fiction. The photographs are of models or actors, the captions tell invented stories. How do you feel?

Probably you feel cheated, lied to.

Why? You might claim that the work was misrepresented, but it was not (let us suppose). You simply assumed that it was not fiction. You're not enraged by the revelation that Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is fiction, are you? Or Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird?

The point is that we view, by default, photographs as true. This is why the press uses them, not because they are true, for they are not, but because we believe them to be true.

What does it matter that a powerful image with a powerful caption is fiction? If it's not misrepresenting itself, why should we either assume that it's true, or be upset when we learn it is not? Isn't it enough that it tell its powerful story well?

I hold no moral high ground here. I'd be as mad as the next fellow. But I'd be just as wrong.

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