Thursday, May 4, 2017

Documentary Photography and Truth

I'm going to set out for your consideration this thesis: that the only relevant yardstick for measuring documentary photography is its inherent "truth" (which will prove slippery in a few more lines). I want to set aside even ethical considerations. While documentary work gathered unethically (whatever that means) reflects on the photographer, and may define whether we want to do business with the photographer, or gift that photographer with our attention, ethics play no role in judging the work itself.

What it "truth" here? In photography we can talk of many layers of truth. You could make a book of entirely staged photos that told some "truth", in the same way that a novel or a play reveals truth.

This isn't documentary.

In documentary work we traditionally have truth all the way up and down the ladder of abstraction. There are probably many ways to dissect this, but here's one. We desire "truth" in the details of the literal picture, that what appears to be in the frame is what was actually there. We desire truth in the "story" implied by the contents of the frame, where we construe "story" very broadly. If she appears sad, it is because she was sad, and so on. We desire truth across the sequence of photographs, that the "story" implied by the sequence, the captions, and any accompanying text be also true.

But what does "true" mean? Well, in many cases there isn't an objective truth. If I collect a bunch of completely unaltered photographs of some world leader looking like a drooling idiot (or a wise statesman) there are many who would argue that this is "true" and many others who would disagree. There is no resolution, here. The individual frames are all "true" but the greater story implied by the sequence is subject to interpretation.

I propose to deal with this issue by ignoring it here. I do not think it's important to what I want to talk about.

Souvid Datta has been "outed" as having plagiarized and photoshopped a picture. To my eye, his photoshopping made the picture "false" in several ways. The literal contents of the frame did not look like that. The story implied by his modified frame, and supported by his caption, are both untrue. While there may have been a woman named Asma who had a friendship with a younger woman named Rhadika, this picture does not depict Asma (that's a plagiarized picture of a transvestite) nor does it depict the story of that friendship.

According to an interview with Datta on, there was an Asma and a Rhadika, but Asma did not wish to be photographed. This is supported, albeit weakly, but the existence of another picture captioned to identify these two women if you poke around the internet.

Datta has lost an essential element of my trust, here. While it does not make his entire Sonagachi essay collapse, it certainly weakens it in my eyes.

Ok, so far so good. Now let's consider what the world has said in judgement of Datta.

In general nobody gives a damn that the picture is untrue. What matters is that it's photoshopped. Ben Chesterton's tiny twitter mob, the commenters on PetaPixel, all are obediently mouthing the "photoshopping is terrible and wrong and Datta should suffer" routine. This is a standard bit of theater that serves the western press extremely well.

Gene Smith "photoshopped" a lot of things, a lot of documentary things. What he did not do, as far as I know, was to falsify any of the pictures in the ways I am describing. He did not alter the facts of the frame, he did not alter the story implied by the frame (although he enhanced it, indeed, that was the point of his manipulations -- to emphasize what was already there), and so on.

It's not the photoshop that matters, it's the falsification, and nobody seems to get that.

Not to accuse anyone of conspiracy, and I genuinely do not think there is one, but let me re-iterate a couple of themes I have gone over in the past.

The "no photoshop!" idea is a self-serving fig leaf invented by the press to create the illusion of truthfulness. By asserting that the facts of the frame will never be altered in a photo that appears in the New York Times, the NYT essentially claims that you can trust them to carefully husband the truth through all the layers of abstraction. This is manifestly false, of course, as anyone who has read the NYT knows.

Similarly, the "ethical reporting" standards invented largely by NGOs have the side effect of guaranteeing that, in the interest of protecting human dignity, all negative stories are vague and distant. The only stories with names, dates, places, and journalistic punch, are the positive ones. This creates a built-in pro-NGO, pro-western slant to the coverage. We've all experienced it. When an NGO has failed, it's "groups of refugees somewhere in Africa" and when an NGO has succeeded it's all "Lakshaki, thanks to the assistance of blah blah now runs the trendiest tea shop in the bustling technology hub in Mumbai!"

And so we have a generation of media types, like Ben Chesterton, who are devoted to rule-following. They believe, I think genuinely, that by abiding by guidelines and rules they ensure that they are Truth Tellers. Their identity is tied up with being Truth Tellers, it is unimaginable to these people that they are anything but. They know that they are, they are assured of their basic goodness, because they abide by the rules.

Souvid Datta's crimes were not, in their eyes, about a failure to tell truth, but about failures to abide by rules. While Datta did fail in his duty to the truth, this is irrelevant to Chesterton, it is irrelevant to the mobs, it is irrelevant to all who would judge Datta. What matters is that he broke the rules.

Since he broke the rules, he must be destroyed. If he had merely falsified the story while complying with the rules, all would be well with the world. After all, that's what the press does.

The rules, let us review, have very little to do with Truth Telling. And Truth Telling in turn is the only thing that actually matters in documentary photography.


  1. It's just incredibly stupid, far as I can see. This is why every artist needs to have a trustworthy friend with some common sense. Totally unnecessary risk that is now going to be a black mark against him for the rest of his life.


    Here's an interview with a prostitute from Kamathipura that you might be interested in.

  3. I am quite sure that the whole prostitution/female slavery story is bad almost every where in the world but Mr. Datta who apparently not only took some of Mark's stuff but also passed off some of Volpe's stuff as his own has shown that he also has no morals. How far should a photographer/artist go to to make a point? and how much can you believe from a guy (who is likely as much British as Indian at this point of life) who acknowledges that he has stolen stuff from other artists.

    1. I thought he apologized rather handsomely and thoroughly in the time piece.

      No doubt the jackals will be checking his claims. If he had been, as he suggests, "clean" for the last year or two, I am OK with putting him on, as it were, parole. Not that I get to decide.

      I like his pictures pretty well. I like the retasking of the McCurry vibe to something more serious and, well, authentic we hope.

  4. One pont about Souvid is that he has been in London since the age of 10 probably making him even more British than Indian than I thought earlier.

    1. I dunno. That he, as it were, swims comfortably in the society of the British I have no doubt. To deny his Indian-ness strikes me as risky.

      All too often we call these sorts of people one thing until it suits us to call them the other.

  5. This is an interesting discussion and I think an important one. Your reference to W. Eugene Smith and photoshopping strikes me as being particularly on point. There is a famous image of a woman carrying a pallet of bread on her head walking in an alley, Portugal or Spain I think. I had occasion to be at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona where W. Eugene Smith's photographs are archived (Thanks, Ansel) and I saw the contact sheet for that shot. The woman was hired to walk up and down that alley, the shot was staged, although women did carry bread like that in that village. That was then, this is now. John Szarkowski makes a compelling argument that a photograph is not narrative, rather it is a single slice of time and nothing can be inferred about what came before or after. All of which leads us back to discussing photography and video.

  6. Werner Herzog has had some interesting things to say regarding "truth" and "fact."