Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Photos Lie!

We see, fairly commonly, the assertion that the photograph lies, that it cannot reliably tell the truth, that it is not the Ground Truth.

Compare this with a similar remark about audio recordings: the CD cannot really replicate the experience of live music.

Both have, obviously, large elements of truth to them, but there is also a remarkable difference. Do you see it? The second refers to the experience of live music, the gritty, real, sweaty, human experience of being in the audience. The former refers, compares with, a largely unknowable, undefinable, abstraction of "truth."

These photos of the riot are not truth, they cannot convey the truth of the riot. You know what else cannot in any meaningful way convey the truth of the riot? Being there. Your human, sweaty, gritty experience of the riot, while its own thing, is also not the ground truth of the riot. Indeed, nothing can really capture and contain the ground truth of the riot. Depending on how you attack it, there may or may not even be a workable definition of what the "ground truth" is. Is it a description of the location and velocity of every subatomic particle within 1000 miles of the riot, for the duration of the event? Would that capture the emotional state of every person in the riot or not? We don't even know the answer to that.

The point theoreticians are generally reaching for is that the amount and nature of truth we think we see in a photo is deceptive. To be honest, I am not sure how true even this is, is supposes that "people" in general are sort of dumb. The theoretician, notably, Is Not Fooled, and furthermore doesn't know anyone who Is Fooled, but somehow there are unwashed masses that are fooled. Be that as it may, I don't think it much matters to my point here.

What is true, and rather more relevant, is that the photograph(s) of the riot also fail to fully capture the experience of being at the riot, in the riot.

At this point, though, we run into another divergence from the conversation about recorded music. Manifestly, everyone's experience of a riot (or a baseball game, or a wedding) will be unique. At least notionally we treat the "live music" experience as shared, as roughly the same for everyone. Of course, if you got trampled at a Van Halen concert, that concert experience is pretty personal. But absent that sort of case, you and the other 59,999 screaming fans are presumed to have had a more or less similar experience.

It is this shared experience which it is presumed the CD does not replicate.

Nevertheless, having stepped cautiously back from the stupid notion of Ground Truth, we find ourselves in a new place.

If we attend a riot, or a baseball game, we imagine in a sense that we "know about it" in some deep way. We experienced it ourselves, and that's worth something. At the same time, though, anyone who's watched a baseball game on television and has also attended a baseball game in person, knows that the two experiences are not really comparable. The TV version will invariably keep you far more in touch with the strategic and tactical elements of the game. You will know, watching the game on TV, a lot more about "what is going on" in the game, moment to moment, than if you're in the audience. I think this is nearly universally understood. You do not attend a game because you wish to more closely follow the game.

In the same way, attending a riot will bring home to the attentive just how fragmented and local your experience of the riot was. You will be surprised to learn, upon returning home, about the fire three blocks away, about the police car that was overturned, although you did observe the extensive spray painting of the post office (or whatever).

Your experience is very personal, very specific, and in those ways is very very deep, but it is not broad. Your sense of the baseballs game's strategic position, and your knowledge of events a couple blocks away, is sketchy. You can, however, still taste the peanuts and beer, and smell the tear gas.

The point here is that any notion of "ground truth" is unapproachable, you can't really get near it. It exists purely as an abstraction, and normal people are more or less aware of this. They may not be in a position to write a Master's thesis about it, but they certainly know that going to see a game live, and seeing a game on TV, are different experiences which yield overlapping and different bodies of knowledge about the game. The rest is a trivial consequence of this observation.

So a photographer goes to a riot. Here is a depiction of their experience of the event, a timeline. It's not ground truth, but it is a firsthand experience of the thing.

They take some pictures of the event, hoping to "capture" it in some meaningful sense. Lets add some dots to indicate when those pictures, the ones they took and chose to put out there for others to see, were taken:

All we see, experiencing the riot remotely, by reading the news article, the blog post, the flickr set, whatever, is this. The photos:

This is what theory is obsessed with. Look! There are just isolated dots!

But when we look at the pictures, we bring our own experience to bear, our own knowledge, our own guesses, and we also bring any captions, accompanying text, other news articles we might have read about the riot to bear, and we reconstruct to a degree the experience:

This thing isn't complete, and it isn't the photographer's experience. It's something different. It's a personal, quasi-experiential, idea of the riot. It's not the ground truth of the riot, either, but who cares? You can't get there no matter how you try.

It's related to the photographer's experience, although not the same. It's not a reconstruction of what our experience of the riot would have been, had we attended (in fact, if you like, you may imagine we did attend, and have our own experiential timeline, which is informing and modifying the quasi-experience we're rebuilding from the photos. The quasi-experience works out different, but the ideas in play here remain the same.)

Framed in these terms it's not clear to me what the big deal is. Yes, the quasi-experiential thing we make out of photos (whether one photo or a bunch of them) is not what we would have experienced had we Actually Been There. Nor is it The Photographer's Authentic Experience. Nor is it The Ground Truth.

But.. so what? It is an experience of the thing, whatever the thing was, or at least it's similar to an experience of the thing. It is not, when examined, inherently less or more truthful than any other experience. It's not clear that a quasi-experience, mediated through photographs, is inferior to any other way to experience a thing. Indeed, it can obviously be superior in many ways.

Just as watching a baseball game on television offers far more access to the strategic and tactical details of the game than any other way to experience the game, a well made photo essay can give us access to an event or circumstance that is in important ways vastly superior to that afforded by any personal experience.

Indeed, this is the core conceit of photojournalism, and it is obviously true.

What is also true is that any mediated experience can be manipulated. You could edit footage of a baseball game to give the impression that the other team lost, because footage can be edited. Media can be manipulated, subtly and unsubtly, in ways that a direct experience cannot.

This, while true, seems to be a little different from the oft-repeated implication that photos are all lies.

Again, I have to get around to "so what?" here. Everyone knows this stuff can be manipulated. The rubes in flyover country may not be down with every little subtle way a photo editor can bugger up a story, but they know perfectly well, in broad strokes, that media can be a pack of lies. It's not at all clear to me that anyone in the world is naive enough to be taken in my manipulated media.

What is true is that people tend to believe media that accords with their world view, and disagree with media that doesn't, but this is largely independent of any manipulations. People simply discard media that doesn't fit, and read media that can be made to fit in favorable ways. Left, right, or just completely nuts, it doesn't matter. People do this.

Try as I might I cannot really pin down what the problematic nature of photos actually is. Every time I get close, it seems to slip away, either being pure chimera, or being obviously an unimportant facet of a larger problem that in the end has very little to do with photos.

Honestly, it's a bit frustrating.


  1. Of course photos don't lie: people do. When someone says photos lie he's talking about a specific instance that bugs him, because he thinks he knows the Ground Truth. That the photo is lying is not the big deal, as you say. The photo is always an artifice, several layers removed from Ground Truth.

  2. Emotion is easy, analysis requires disciplined thought, which is not easy.

    A quick look at a photo can hit the gut. But trying to understand what's really going may be a mug's game because it may be impossible to know all the "facts". In addition, photographers can have an agenda and may deliberately hide or reframe the "facts". It may be a mistake, or waste of time at least, to try to find what can't be found. All I can say is that as I get older I am finding it easier and easier to live with the unknowable, but I cannot determine if this is wisdom or cognitive failure.

    1. Same here, except I was just assuming it was wisdom -- hadn't considered cognitive failure.

    2. Wisdom is the outward appearance of a reconciliation with cognitive failure...


    3. I've finally found the title for my book!

    4. Call it, "I Don't Know, But Who Cares, Anyway?"