Friday, December 3, 2021

Truthiness in Photos

Over on C4Journal, we see an article from our friend Lewis Bush, on post-truth photography. I take exception to a couple of points, but essentially he's offering a fair summary of certain philosophical ideas, pointing out that the Truth of photographs is a bit dicey, and then plunging into a short survey of some artists nobody has ever heard of who are "playing with the dialectics" or whatever around Truth and Photographs.

As usual, it is more my intention to examine some adjacent issues, rather than to truly take issue with Lewis's piece.

There are at least two significant contributors to what we might as well call the variability in perceived meaning of a photograph. This variability in meaning is a slight generalization of the idea that a photo is or is not True, of course, but allows us to ignore the issue of whether there is a Ground Truth to be varied from. A photo's meaning might indeed vary from a Ground Truth, but also it varies from your opinion of it, and from mine.

The first source of variability lies in the methods and technologies of the photograph itself. Let's say, the way photographing can shape the story. You can frame or crop things carefully to leave out details which contradict a version of the story. You can select these subjects, and reject those. The whole gamut, right? This is the kind of thing the self-styled experts of Photoland (which includes the editorial team at C4Journal) like to talk about, because it centers the photograph.

The second, and I submit much more important source, is what we as viewers bring to the table.

Consider a riot. We see some photos of it, and we find some opinion. The rioters are good or bad, the cause is just or unjust, and so on.

As a rule, in our western society, the photographs have almost no power to shape these opinions. The photographs will invariably be by-the-numbers generic photographs which serve the purpose of reifying the riot as a riot. These photographs say nothing more than "there was a riot, see?" Essentially the same photos say essentially the same thing about every riot; this is the method of western photojournalism. The very generic-ness of the pictures inures us to any attempts they might make to shape the meaning of the riot.

Our opinion of the riot has, as a practical matter, nothing to do with the photographic shaping of the story, and everything to do with us. A bunch of MAGA-hat wearing yahoos rioting is bad, a bunch of BLM supporters rioting is good, and that is the end of it. It doesn't matter if we saw the riot out the window, heard about it on the radio, or saw some photographs of it. It may surprise you to learn that other people might see these riots in a different way.

Note that this does not imply that every possible photograph works this lightly. I say only that the photos we will likely see will fail to move us. One certainly could photograph the MAGA-hat guys to look more evil, and the BLM guys to look more saintly, but generally the press photographer is looking for the standard set pieces no matter what the riot.

Another way to look at my distinction between the two sources of variable meaning is this: in the first case, the photography matters, and in the second case it does not — we would arrive at the same answer if we saw it with our own eyes.

This, arguably, is the point of the photograph. It is not that the photograph reveals some singular truth, that it changes minds as necessary to align all minds alike. Photographs don't, and never have. The ideal ought to be that they offer an equivalence to seeing it in person, with all the messy variability that brings with it.

There is, I think, a tendency among some theorists to conflate the two. People seeing news coverage of something arrive at different conclusions about it. The media theorist, being a media theorist, assumes that it is the media at fault.

There is little distinction made here between a photographer shaping a story in ways that don't suit the theorist, and a photographer failing to shape a story in ways that do suit the theorist. The generic photograph that treats the BLM-protester and the MAGA-hatter the same way is just as bad as the photograph that makes the wrong distinction between them.

"If only, " they reason, "the photographer had photographed those MAGA-hats to look shittier and dumber, the world at large would see that my point of view is the correct one."

This is... not quite right.

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