Moments of Truth

It’s long been said that the camera never lies.  That’s not true.  It may not be the camera itself that does the lying but the person holding it is certainly manipulating the truth every single time the shutter is released.  Take for example the famous pyramids in Giza.  I’ve never been there but I’m reliably informed that Cairo’s urban sprawl encroaches right on to the edge of that so often photographed vista in the desert.  The fact is, most shots of the pyramids are taken from an angle that excludes views of Africa’s second largest city.

Whenever we take a photograph it is up to us as photographers to make decisions, often sub-consciously, about what we include in the shot, how we frame it, how we expose it, what camera angle we choose and so on.  But just as important is what we choose to leave out.  That is often a more conscious decision and one that can lead to much controversy if not taken carefully.  And it’s not only photographers who manipulate truth and reality in this way.  When it comes to reporting current affairs, Picture Editors decide which images best tell the story that they want to be told, thereby immediately introducing a second level of decision-making in to what is finally presented to the picture consuming public.


Take for example the emotionally powerful image of a four-year old refugee taken at the beginning of the current conflict in Syria, seemingly lost and alone in the desert and found by UN workers.  In reality he had become separated from his family but was far from alone in the desert.  The image had been cropped to represent a "cropped" version of the story.  So while the camera itself isn’t actually lying, it is being used as a tool that is selective about what is represented.  And as such it is able to focus the viewers’ attention on specific elements which are particularly significant or effective in creating a response.

Similarly, images posted on twitter in 2014 depicting state violence and brutality towards civilians in protests in Venezuela were a mixture of both truth and fiction.  Alongside genuine shots of the Venezuelan protests, images of police brutality from other protests around the world were also used, presumably in an attempt to create a stronger reaction and thereby generate sympathy and support for the protesters, especially given the lack of media attention they were receiving.   However, if people are trying to tell the truth through the use of photographic images, they aren’t doing themselves any favours when they use them in this way.

But the question of “telling the truth” goes far beyond using images from other conflicts in a different context and claiming they are genuine, or cropping in to a small section of a wider scene for maximum effect.  It starts with what a photographer chooses to represent in an image.  The history of photography provides many examples of staged scenes depicting a supposed truth.

The obvious example is of Robert Capa’s famous picture of a falling soldier shot during the Spanish civil war which has often been accused of being faked, although Capa himself denied this.  Fred Morley’s image of a chirpy milkman delivering milk through ruined London streets during the Blitz is on the other hand a confirmed fake.  Nevertheless, both are powerful images which reflect a genuine representation of real events.

By contrast, in 2004 the Daily Mirror published fake pictures of British army brutality in Iraq, resulting in the newspaper sacking it’s then editor Piers Morgan.   In this instance the intention was less about offering a genuine news story or an insightful perspective on a conflict situation, more about selling newspapers through the use of shocking imagery.  Shock, like sex, sells.

But it’s not only the question of staged scenes which cast doubt over the authenticity of photographs.  Photographers are often accused of photo-shopping images as if it’s a crime.  There was huge debate about truth in photography in relation to Paul Hansen’s winning image of the 2012 World Press Photography Award on the basis that the image had been overly photo-shopped.  For a detailed discussion of the controversy, click here.  This year again, the debate is revisited in the same vein, with 20% of images being disqualified in the penultimate round due to manipulation in post production.  

The fact is that photographs have always been manipulated in some way or another.  It is in the very nature of photography to be selective in what is represented in and by an image.  If a photograph has been digitally processed to enhance tonal contrast or increase saturation for dramatic effect, that’s no different to dodging and burning techniques used by dark room technicians in the days of processing film and making prints.  The extent to which an image is re-touched during this process is subject to endless debate in terms of what is acceptable and where to draw the line.  There is no end of debate surrounding fashion photography and the impact that has on image-conscious teenagers with aspirations to look like something that could never possibly be achieved without the aid of Photoshop and the damage that can lead to.

The point is, photographic images are powerful tools and their manipulation has existed as long as photography has.  Manipulation here refers not only to the image itself but also its use as a medium to communicate information.  If a photograph can lead us to question what we see and in so doing nurture a better understanding of the world and the events that take place in it, that is surely a good thing.  Furthermore it can also shine a spotlight on our reactions to those events and help develop a better understanding of our collective sense of morality.  The difficulty can be in filtering the good from the bad, the genuine from the fake, especially in an era where so many image manipulation options are so readily available to so many.

We as consumers have become so used to seeing powerful and arresting images that we are becoming increasingly desensitised to them.  After Kevin Carter shot his Pulitzer Prize winning image of a starving child in Sudan in 1993 it was used by an international aid charity as a poster campaign to raise awareness of dreadful human suffering and tragedy.  I wonder if it would have the same impact today.  The fact is, that image was also slightly misleading.  The child was starving.  There was a vulture in the background.  But the child was in a camp where international food aid was being distributed, not alone in the desert as the image might make you believe.  And if you’ve been to certain parts of Africa, you’ll know that vultures are as common there as pigeons are in Trafalgar Square.

The success of the shot lies in the photographer’s decisions on how to take the shot for maximum impact in order to tell the story, in this case an undeniably true story of human suffering.  It’s precisely that ability to make those decisions that defines great photographers.  Sadly, Carter committed suicide only three months after taking that picture.

So while truth may or may not exist independently of a person’s interpretation of what they think it is, and the camera remains a tool used to selectively represent reality, a great photograph is still one person’s moment of truth captured at around 1/125th second.