Who are the gatekeepers of the Truth?
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 208, November 2017
There is always a version of the truth that is nothing more than a story. Why burden photographers with the sole responsibility for veracity?
You know the adage, the one about lies and cameras and the negative correlation between the two. Its stuck because its true. A camera can’t tell lies anymore than a banana or a bottle of Campari can but, then again, I have never sought the truth from a banana or a Campari (soda with a slice of orange and a few lumps of ice, although… come to think of it…). The growth of critical thought around photography led to the enshrining of one of its great strengths in the public consciousness – that because a camera is a mechanical light recorder with no brain of its own it cannot possibly tell an untruth or record anything other than the pristine truth.
In an act of magical cultural development some of the glimmer of irreducible truth transferred itself from the capabilities of the camera to the eventual prints that were made from its compulsive ‘blinks’. Even today, we ascribe to the photograph the quality of ‘fact’. A photograph is an artefact which, at its irreducible base, is a statement that something took place and was recorded the way it is shown here today by virtue of it being ‘a photograph’. Today we are used to questioning the veracity of images – first ‘the System’, then Photoshop and now countless apps – have eroded to the point of zero the reliability of the ‘fact’ of a photograph but for the purposes of this article we are not concerned with the wholesale ‘Shopping’ of images rather the image itself as defined by the frame or its eventual crop.
I have written before about Nick Ut’s famous Napalm Girl (1972) photograph shot in the midst of the Vietnam war.. A young girl runs down a road away from the most hideous experience imaginable. She has been napalmed by a US airforce attack and her nakedness adds to the horror of the scene. For me the anguish on the face of the boy on the left the picture is as affecting but we have all come to the know this picture as Napalm Girl. For a long time after the picture was first printed in newspapers the soldier/journalist seen casually reloading his camera on the right of the frame was cropped out, perhaps because it reduced the anti-US/anti-war power of the image. The role of the (seemingly) oblivious ‘man on the right’ confused the story and took the emotional power away from the heavy drama the rest of the image depicts.
Many people questioned the veracity of this image. Not because of any questions arising from the crop but from a disbelief of the scene it portrayed and a suspicion that it was merely anti-Vietnam war propaganda. President Nixon questioned the truth of the image but it wasn’t until Nick Ut (corroborated by ITN) described the circumstances in which the image was made that the truth of the image was ‘established’. This image is an excellent example of how one picture can represent various ‘truths’ because it shows how, depending on the sensibilities of the viewer, belief in an image regardless of its provenance, is subjective.
We are all well aware of the skill of a film editor who cuts together a documentary and how subjective that process can be. We take it for granted that the truth as revealed to us in a TV ‘doc’ needs to be appreciated through the filtered awareness of how programs are made and the experience of living in a media world saturated by partisan ownership and the powerful demands of the market or politics. But for some reason the simple still photograph carries an air of truth that is not accorded to other media. There is a myth about the photographer that is not granted to other documenters or artists. This myth goes right to the heart of how photography has been popularised by illuminating talents – brave talents like Robert Capa.
In his account of the 2nd World War, Slightly of of Focus (the most exciting and entertaining photographic account I’ve read) Capa describes his war. Needless to say it is riveting – just the opening chapters about how he managed to arrive at the theatre of conflict from New York are worth the cover price. Capa lived to take pictures and by the age of 25 was already being described as the greatest war photographer in the world. But that doesn’t mean he was always telling the truth. Capa has been criticised for his image of a ‘Falling Soldier (Spanish Civil War, 1938) – it can’t have been photographed in the way that the 22 year old Capa described – but that photograph is famous not because of its truthfulness but because it was understood to encapsulate a moment of truth. The picture is still Capa’s most famous despite its ragged history.
It is part of the human condition to discern between fact and fiction. At the very least we must accept that truth is a subjective concept. As Gary Winogrand said, ‘There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described…’. Photography is a storytelling medium which intersects occasionally with the truth. How and when this happens is up to us each to decide.
NOTE Whilst researching this article I came across the Time website which still features the cropped version… And to add to the mystery I also discovered that it may not have been the US who dropped the napalm that day that burned the little girl. It is authoritatively claimed that it was the South Vietnamese Airforce who napalmed their own villages in support of their ground forces. In other words, this time the Americans had nothing to do with it. Truth, especially when it comes to a single image, is a slippery beast…