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The Value of Trust in Photography


Photography is the process of creating images by recording light. The word comes from the Greek words photo, meaning “light,” and graphé, meaning “to draw”.

Datagraphy is the process of creating images using data, as per with generative AI. It blends “data,” referring to numerical or structured information, with “-graphy,” a suffix meaning “to draw” or “to write.”

Lately, I have been thinking about trust and how it relates to photography. For a long time, photography has been a trusted vehicle of information, even though it could be manipulated from its inception. It has been a prominent vehicle for transferring truth, used in journalism, courthouses, science experiments, commerce, business transactions, and law enforcement to confirm a claim. As we experience its displacement with the advent of datagraphy, the relationship between photography and trust—and truth—is being seriously challenged, if not eclipsed.

The primary sense:

Among all our senses, vision stands as the most fundamental. When confronted with conflicting information from our other senses—touch, smell, and hearing—our brain invariably prioritizes visual input as the reference point for decision-making. Our reliance on sight is crucial for survival. Photography, as an extension of this dominant sense, plays a significant role in our decision-making process

From images of horrendous living conditions of immigrants in the early XX century to the Vietnam War and famine in Ethiopia, without forgetting oil spills and other environmental disasters, photography has, time and time again, shaped public opinion and spurred social changes.

“Five Cents a Spot” (circa 1890)Credit…Jacob A. Riis, Museum of the City of New York

Because we rely exclusively on photography to understand information from where we cannot get any other sensory input, it is fundamental to how we make sense of the world. If we lose our trust in it- if we can no longer believe what we see- we are no longer able to make proper decisions.

Photography has been at the very core of the establishment and sustenance of democracies worldwide. It has been responsible for creating – and bringing down- leaders worldwide. It has spoken truth to power and, more importantly, forced officials to be accountable for their decisions and actions. Without trust in photography, we are in the dark and incapable of clear judgments. Without trust in photography, our democracies and our societies are in serious danger of disappearing. Loss of trust in photography is an existential threat to civilization.

An elegant solution

But how do we preserve trust in an age of AI generative imagery? How do we maintain this indispensable bridge between truth and ourselves that photography provides?

We could build cameras that seal captured content into an uneditable vault. An immutable digital inscrition. We could have done that a long time ago but never did. What we like about photography is that it can be edited (cropped, adjusted, decolorized, etc.). One would think that is counter to a trust relationship, but not at all. Trust, unlike truth, is subjective and not linked to objects, machinery, or mediums. It is linked to people. We don’t trust the planes we fly; we trust the people who built and operate them ( otherwise called pilots). People trust people. The same goes for photography. We do not trust photography per se or cameras; we trust the photographer or the institution that has brought us the photograph. We trust that any modification done between the moment of capture and the moment of consumption was purely aesthetic and did not alter the core significance of the image. We trust the operators, not the machines or, in this case, the medium.

Thus, the question of how to solve the trust in photography is how do we continue to trust those in charge of creating and providing those images to us?

Simple: We have to trust what we are seeing is what they attempted to convey to us without any malicious outside interference. We do not need immutable images; we need an immutable certificate of authenticity. This ensures that we can be completely confident that the image we are viewing is precisely what our trusted information source intends to convey through their photography. This is exactly what a handful of the most important companies in the world are trying to implement with Content Credentials.

What is the value of trust?

We have the tools to preserve trust in images…but how do we get everyone to use them?

This drives us to the core issue: what is that trust’s value? Does a photograph that contains that certificate have more value than one that doesn’t? And if so, how much more?

Consider, for example, if I had to purchase a photograph that could definitively tell me whether a plant in a wilderness survival scenario is a life-saving medicinal herb or a deadly toxic lookalike. How much would I be willing to pay for it if my life depended on it? And If another photograph helped me unequivocally decide who, from two candidates, would make a better president, would I pay the same amount?

In both cases- both potentially life-threatening but at a different pace- we would be willing to pay because there is clear value-  as long as we had a guarantee of the reliability of the information.

The next hurdle is how:

We have been comfortable with the idea that advertisers have taken the responsibility of paying for our news because it’s free for us. But because they only care about our attention, brands have little to no incentive to pay extra for the cost of securing trusted information. That is why news outlets and publications worldwide have been obliged to supplement with paywalls paid for by readers. Should they now ask more to secure verifiable, trusted imagery? Will readers agree to pay? If not, will advertisers see a financial uptake in supporting this effort?

Or should legislation step in and enforce journalistic deontology by force of law? In this scenario, an organization would be required only to use images with a content credential to be an accredited news or media outlet. But any democracy would be hesitant to interfere with the freedom of expression of the fourth estate, especially by dictating their sources.

Currently, the major hurdles in creating platforms for credible and tamper-proof visual content are more rooted in commercial realms than technical ones. The essence lies in monetizing trust, a crucial step in encouraging both creators and consumers of information to engage in an exchange grounded in both values and value. The monetary quantification of credibility mirrors our societal and personal prioritization of the visual truths that guide our most significant choices. Proper alignment of truth’s market value with its vital role in human progress might make preserving the enlightening essence of photography in the digital age feasible through innovative collaboration rather than relying solely on regulatory mandates to trust in unverified images.


Main image via Adobe Firefly


Author: Paul Melcher

Paul Melcher is a highly influential and visionary leader in visual tech, with 20+ years of experience in licensing, tech innovation, and entrepreneurship. He is the Managing Director of MelcherSystem and has held executive roles at Corbis, Stipple, and more. Melcher received a Digital Media Licensing Association Award and is a board member of Plus Coalition, Clippn, and Anthology, and has been named among the “100 most influential individuals in American photography”

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