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Where does photography lie?

Photo by mirkuz

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau

As the world of photography inexorably advances into the grasp of advanced computerized processing – filters, computational imaging, deep learning, A.I, multi-lenses and more- we start to doubt its ability to properly represent reality. In a world dominated by computational enhancements, can we trust what we see?

Historically, we have always taken for granted that photography represents reality. Since in its basic format – the camera obscura – it simply captures the rebounding light of any object placed in front of it, we tend to think of it as a mirror stripped of time. But, in an effort to enhance the photographic experience, we have moved further and further  from its initial ability. To the point that today, we can actually have photographs of things that never happened.

let’s make something very clear. Photography is and has always been, a lie. In fact, human vision is a lie. It recreates reality by eliminating and transforming a variety of elements. For example, our eyes, or rather our brains, assigns what we call colors to different wavelengths so that we can easily differentiate them. However, these colors are completely artificial and actually do not exist. We also strip out wavelengths evolution has deemed unnecessary to our best understanding of our surroundings, like ultraviolet or infrared. Other animals can see them, we don’t. We, as well as our cameras, have a limited field of vision. We see within a delimited frame. So, in fact, photography as well as our vision, lie by the process of elimination. They do not represent exactly what is in front of us, but just a very selective part. But it is the best we have.

Look vs See

Regardless of its inability to perfectly represent our world, the way a mirror would, we still grant photography the privilege of adequately representing it. When we first look at photographs, we immediately grant them the reality credence. We do so not because of what we are looking at, but because of what we see. Our brains have an uncanny ability to process information by adding the missing elements from its own knowledge library, in order to complete the picture. We don’t just look, we interpret. We add color to b/w pictures, we add sound, dimension, smells, emotions. We, in other words, add the reality to an otherwise imperfect representation. What matters is what we see. This is something great photojournalism has been brilliant at understanding and delivering. By showing us part of an event, sometimes just details, it lets us be fully immersed in a far away reality. So much so that often, in response, we feel the urge to respond and act.

Did we lose authenticity by moving from analog to digital?
Photo by alexphotocamera

Real vs Authentic

What we seek in our photograph is not so much a mirror image of our reality but rather its deeper meaning. Currently, an active debate is raging regarding stock photography’s ability to deliver a true or real experience. Faced with the competing onslaught of UGC, it is more and more standing out as a fake, artificial representation of reality that delivers poor engagement. In turn, UGC has a spontaneous, captured in the moment aspect that viewers  more strongly relate to. But both are artifacts. The stock photograph is built using well-known elements of real life but in an artificial setting. So much so that the setting, not the elements themselves, screams set-up. And if it’s set up, then it must be fake. In other words, the image itself, by the unnatural aggregation of too many perfect elements, lighting, models, location immediately sends us the message that what we see is fake since we know, from experience, that this kind of combination of perfect elements together in one place and one moment just doesn’t happen. What is missing is the imperfections of life. Here again, it is what we see that tells us that it isn’t real, not what we are looking at.

However, and to close the debate permanently, it is not hard to fake authenticity, by eliminating some of the overwhelming perfection. Famous photographer Terry Richardson, for example, has built a career on faking the spontaneous, “authentic” shot using faux flash burns and not so perfect settings ( only the models remained perfect).

Telling vs convincing

It is easy to tell a story but much harder to convince. While we use photography to narrate a story, sometimes as short as one image, we only succeed when explaining well enough to convince our audience. And when we succeed in convincing, our images are perceived as real. Here again, great photojournalism excels at this. Eugene Smith, considered one of the great masters, has time and again, set up, rearranged, enhanced his photographs, only to masterfully convince his viewers. His photographs – all of them in B/W by the way- are considered some of the best form of photojournalism. Because his photos convince, not because they are mirrors of reality. The same can be said for UGC content. They appear as real because they convince us that it really happened, even though most of them are full of second-hand artifacts such as filters or cropping (Instagram).

Action vs reaction

We take pictures because we seek a reaction from others. From photojournalists who seek concern to fine art photographers seeking recognition, from teen-aged girls seeking acceptance to brands seeking retribution, the act of taking photographs is an ask for a reaction. Social media and its “likes” or “shares” has perfectly capitalized on this. The result is that we do not care so much about capturing reality for the sake of sharing via our photograph – after all, we all know reality too well- but rather we care of sharing our reality with others. One which is flawed with subjectivity, opinions, personal experience. We do not want to share the real, we want to share the Me. And in return, we want a reaction. A photograph that generates no reaction is not a photograph. One that compels people to act, share, respond, interact is a reality. This, even if the photograph itself is full of artifacts that put it miles away from a mirror-like image of reality. How people react to an image makes it real.

Is it real ? 75% Of Ikea’s Catalog Is Computer Generated Imagery. 
Photo by davetoaster

Truth vs reality

As the computational power of our capturing devices – whatever they become to be – increases, the further we are moving away from our camera obscura and its mirror-like reality. But are we moving away from capturing the truth? A current raging debate in the photojournalistic world is figuring how much a photographer is allowed to edit his original image without crossing the ‘truth” line. While some organizations are drawing hard lines in the sand, putting limits on any alteration a photographer can apply, it is bound to fail. Cameras that can reprocess images on the fly as they are captured based on a set of pre-existing aesthetic guidelines already exist. The original file is thus unaltered although elements have been rearranged automatically by the camera itself. So, unless if a representative of the organization was next to the photographer at the moment of capturing the image, they will never know that it was altered and worse, how much.

The answer to this debate lies uphill, prior to when any image is taken. It’s an ethical issue and has always been: whether the photographer has clear intention to lie and deceive. Robert Capa had no intention to lie or deceive when he reconstituted events so he could photograph them. He just wanted to show what had happened before he had a chance to get there. And Eugene Smith had no intention to lie or deceive when he heavily retouched his prints in the darkroom. He wanted to convince. In neither case and in many more since, while the photographs might have been altered, the truth was not. And that is the only point that matters.

Why does it matter?

Obviously because truth matters. But also because as we let our visual machines become more and more in control of our reality (TV, computers, cell phones, gaming platforms, VR) we will seek the ability to have an anchor to it. While our definition of what is reality might change, we will still fundamentally rely on our senses to confirm our perception. Our vision being one that we have traditionally relied the most on for confirmation. And since photography is an extension of our vision, we will continue to depend on it to bring us back information of things, places, and moments we haven’t seen in person. In the process, we will also continue to rely on it to report on what is real: whatever format it might take.


-This post was inspired by a great DMLA panel I  participate in, moderated by Stephen Mayes with Anna Dickson of Google, Taylor Davidson and Severin Matusek of EyeEm as co-panelists.

– For more reading on the topic, I strongly suggest reading Taylor Davidson’s entry on Kaptur

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Author: pmelcher

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