In his article Redacting Violence: The Photo-Manipulations of Josh Azzarella Pete Brook, who has a blog about prison photography, comments that:
“Past and present ruminations about what is and isn’t a photograph have been a source of frustration for me. For one, people can draw whatever lines they wish to determine the point at which manipulation tricks out a photograph and thus qualifies it as photo-illustration. And for another, as Errol Morris keeps banging on about, ALL photography is lies (and manipulation).
These debates are not about truth. Interventions – power relations, habit, photographic custom, complicity among subjects, props, political agendas (and framing), cropping, tweaking of exposure levels before and after development, digital alterations – mean that photography can never be, will never be truthful.”
This is an extremely interesting stand for a photographer to take, and it really got me thinking. How many times have we seen photos from war-zones, tragedies, and natural catastrophes, and it made us understand the truth of a situation? How many times have photographs from somewhere across the world stirred us up to take a stand against something, or donate money, or make a change in how we live?
How many times have we been manipulated, deceived by such photographs?
How many times have such photographs made a profound change for the better in our world?
Of course there are no exact answers for these hypothetical questions, but on both sides of the argument the tally would be astronomical. As humans we are taught to trust our eyes; we are told that seeing is believing. And these are good rules in principle.
But, of course not everything we see is true, and not everything our eyes tell us is based in reality. We’re subjective beings by nature; we interpret what our senses tell us. We believe what we understand to be real based on all our preconceived knowledge and beliefs about the world around us.
Is photography all based on lies?
Are all sharks man-eaters? Do all flowers smell sweet?
When we are children, we often think in absolutes. We often sort out our frightening world into good or bad, right or wrong, real or fantasy. It makes it easer for us to begin to comprehend the huge universe that spreads out around us.
But we don’t ever truly comprehend it. We don’t ever truly embrace the full spectrum of uncertainty and illusion that is our existence. Ever. To do so would probably make us insane, incapable of functioning in such an unreliable, and bewildering, world.
Is photography all lies? Of course not; I’m surprised someone would make such a statement. On the other hand, is photography truth? Nope. Photography is interpretation, pure and simple. It may be as close to objective as the photographer can manage, but it will never be objective. It may be as manipulative as late night TV advertising, or a gentle reminder that the world is full of unexplained phenomena.
What I liked about Pete Brooks article was that he urges us to take photography in that vein. He espouses the idea that photographers can manipulate the viewer with a clear and honest purpose, not hidden agenda. We are no longer naive people to be toyed with, but active participants in what the photographer s trying to communicate.
As an unexperienced photographer this gave me a moment to stop and consider once more the eternal question that faced me as a writer. Those of us who create have a responsibility to consider what effect their creations will have in the world.
Are artists responsible for people who act upon impulses or ideas that were inspired by the art? If so, to what degree? Do we censor ourselves, or accept outside censorship from some governing body?
I came to believe many years ago that censorship is moral quicksand. It’s a frightening, dangerous environment that can swallow us up before we see it coming. I can’t support censorship any more than I can support the idea of absolutes.
Photography is not reality, any more than music, paintings or documentaries are reality. Photography is a visual representation of the photographer’s interpretation of the world. Not completely a lie, nor completely a truth. It simply lives somewhere in that gray area we call human experience; for better or for worse, it’s a product of our own imaginations, our personal truth, our hopes and our fears.
Beautiful and dangerous; as powerful as life itself. A heady thing, overall, at least in this humble little photographer’s opinion.