Serious practitioners of conventional photography know of the many ways that they can stage-manage the truth. It starts in the field. Where do you point the camera? What do you ask of your subjects? Do you move things? What do you leave out? When do you trip the shutter? How do you exploit lens distortions? It continues in the darkroom. Print someone dark to make them sinister? Airbrush the negative? It takes skill, but the possibilities are endless.
In spite of all the ways that a photograph can misrepresent reality, the photographic medium has always possessed incredible power to generate belief, immediacy, and visceral impact in the viewer.
Twenty-odd years ago, when digital photography first burst into public consciousness with National Geographic’s thoughtless moving of pyramids, people said that the day was coming when photography would lose its veracity. At the beginning of the ‘90s, Photoshop brought the means to manipulate photographs to the desktop; many declared documentary photography dead and made preparations for the funeral.
The world has just witnessed a sad and terrible event that makes an effective argument that photographs (including motion video, in this case) as documents of the truth continue to convince, and do so with great power and emotional impact. The Iraq prisoner abuse scandal had apparently been percolating through the US military bureaucracy for several months with deliberate speed. The investigators and their superiors in our government must have known that leaks were inevitable, but they appeared completely unprepared for the firestorm of outrage that greeted the leaks. That’s because the information appeared in the form of photographs. Text, or even video interviews with witnesses would not have had anywhere near the perceived veracity and go-for-the-gut impact.
How can it be that, in an era when photographs can be composited, selectively erased, distorted, and otherwise modified with unprecedented ease and verisimilitude, that they retain their ability to convince? One factor is the democratization of photography that started with George Eastman and has continued with dizzying speed to include tiny auto-everything PHD (push here, dummy) still and video cameras and even cameras in cell phones. Another reason is the rise of nearly-ubiquitous, rapid digital communications and the integration of communications systems with photographic ones. The prisoner-abuse photos spread speedily over the world, mostly as email attachments, and, later, images on web sites and in the commercial media. The combination of a large number of sources for the images and their immediate dissemination reduced the probability of massive photographic manipulation to near-zero.
We photographers continue to wield a powerful tool. We should take care not to abuse that power.