Monday, June 8, 2020

Changing Hearts and Minds

As long time readers know I am fascinated by the question of if and how photographs change minds and alter public opinion. This is the latest iteration of my evolving thoughts on the matter.

When we read a novel or watch a movie, the world implied is fictional. It may contain fantastical things. Alien spacecraft, talking dogs, college girls who are not boring and who truly love middle aged men, that sort of thing. We accept these things, because that world is fictional.

A photograph, on the other hand, at least a photograph in the documentary or vernacular mode, is nominally true. The world implied by the picture is the same world we live in.

Accordingly, when we look at a photo of this sort and attempt to make sense of it, we strive to reconcile it with the world we live in — as we understand it. Sometimes we simply elide details in the photo, either by accident, or semi-kinda-on-purpose to make it fit. Almost always we interpret details, even if the details are objectively neutral, as having some biased meaning that makes the picture fit. If we cannot reconcile the picture with our idea of the world, we are most likely to reject the picture as fake.

The fictional worlds of novels and films can introduce us to new ideas more gently. We do not reject the remarkable college girl as ridiculous, because she exists only in this movie. More usefully, there are actually ideas and possibilities that are relevant to the real world that can be more safely offered up. You can sneak a little socialism past a die-hard free-marketeer, a little racial justice past the bigot, even a little authoritarianism past, well, me.

Consider a photograph of Donald Trump reading Infinite Jest. There is a large swathe of the world that would summarily reject the photograph as faked: either staged, or photoshopped. Almost all of them would say that thay're rejecting the photo on the grounds that it is an objective fact that Donald Trump doesn't read books like that. This isn't quite right: the rejection comes from your belief that Trump doesn't. Whether he actually does or not is irrelevant, you reject the photo because you believe he does not. Others would accept the photo because they believe no such thing.

Yes, yes, they are wrong and you are right and it is objectively true. Hush, you're missing the point.

If a photograph were to have changed our mind, in the first place it would have had to not fit into our world view, and in the second place we would have actually altered our world view to fit the photo, rather than vice versa. That's what it means to have changed our mind, after all.

Unlike a novel, or a movie, or a drawing, the photograph does not present us with a possible new world, it does not offer a what-if scenario. It offers what actually is. In order to change our mind, we must change our idea of what actually is. There is no gentle path to a modified world-view here, it's all or nothing.

The only place I can see a photograph working, on its own, to change anything in our minds is in a place where we're already uncertain. A space needs to be available in the mind. A photograph of something we know nothing of? Fantastic, now I know a little. A photograph of something I used to be sure of, but am now uncertain? Perhaps it will change my idea, it's possible. An opening exists.

I think one might have a firmly held opinion softened up over time, probably not entirely by visuals. A news story here, a fictionalized (and thus more digestible) account there, a few pictures and so on. After a while we're no longer entirely sure that our country's adventure in Vietnam is a great idea. At some point, we are prepared to accept a photograph of an atrocity as, maybe, real. There is a soft spot in our world-view into which, with minimal housekeeping, we can actually fit that awful picture.

A year earlier, when we were more sure about the rightness of the adventure, we would have dismissed the photo. A fake, a poorly chosen camera angle, a fluke of some sort. Now, it feels quite different. The war itself has not, history will teach us, changed very much. Our belief about the war has.

Accordingly, the world-idea against which we are compelled to reconcile the photograph is different, and the reconciliation is possible, or at any rate proceeds along different lines.

It feels fairly weird to be arguing that photographs are peculiarly ill-suited to changing public opinion, but to be honest, I think my argument's pretty strong.


  1. Maybe. Try a slide rule on this:
    I remember the snapshot made during the Apollo 11 moon landing.
    We saw the Earth as a floating oasis of life in a great void.
    And realisation that in the beginning God created non-being. Out of that intolerable tension thundered a vast cry of birth-pain and the universe of universes came into being and eternity was created.
    An entire generation had their consciousness raised. So it goes...

    1. I dunno, maybe!

      Maybe, though, it landed so far outside of everyone's world view that it had plenty of space to fit in. The flat earthers, who DID have a world view that goes out that far, sure rejected the shit out of it!