More realistic than reality itself

Gorges du Verdon, as perceived by Natacha de Mahieu.

A PHOTOGRAPH CAN NEVER fully reflect the experience you had when you took it. Photographs mirror what we see (well, almost … cameras have just one eye while most of us have two, but that’s a different story) – not what we think we see, affected by time, movement, and our inevitable bias.

This observation is by no means new or original. Over the years, less experienced photographers have suffered countless frustrations imagining that they had captured the drama of a situation, the steepness of a mountainside, the magnificence of a sunset, etc, only to find that what came out of the camera in the end was nothing like they had expected it to be.

BUT THE DIFFERENCE between what we see, and what we think we see, has also led creative people to find new ways of describing the world visually. Picasso and his contemporaries started showing objects from more than one angle in the same painting, thereby giving viewers a richer experience and perhaps a more “true” representation of the motif, and since then, artists have used all kinds of tricks to express their particular view of the world. Today, it has become our expectation that art should distort reality – to the extent that if we see a painting or sculpture that ”just” looks real, we might react negatively and dismiss the piece of art as ”phony”.

WITH PHOTOGRAPHY, it’s a different ball game. When looking at a photograph, we expect it to “tell the truth”, and there’s a pejorative term for photographs which have been altered (art & commercial photography put aside): It’s called “photo manipulation“, and if the jury of a press photography contest suspect that a photo has been ”manipulated”, it is not allowed to compete.

I have written a lot about the logical inconsistencies that come with this zero tolerance policy and won’t go down that road again; this time, my errand is to show a powerful example of how the editing possibilities of Adobe Photoshop and similar applications can in fact be used to compose images with a high degree of authenticity – even though they would never pass the rigid restrictions of a press photography contest.

Obersee, as perceived by Natacha de Mahieu.

NATACHA DE MAHIEU is a young Belgian photographer whose photos (check them out on her Instagram page) explore mass tourism and how most of us behave when we travel. She found the inspiration for her graduation project for a master’s degree in documentary photography, named Theatre of Authenticity, when seeing how people who posted their holiday photos on Instagram all seemed to be going to the same places, using the same photographic compositions, the same colours, etc.

On her visit to Obersee, a remote lake surrounded by lush green mountains and dramatic waterfalls in a south-east corner of Germany, on a chilly day in August 2021, she noticed that when photographing each other (or taking selfies) in front of the scenery, visitors would go to great lengths to omit everybody else from the photo. It had to look as though they were the only ones there. Also, people would typically take off their overclothes, apparently to convey the image of a blissful summer’s day. In front of the camera: T-shirts, floaty dresses. Behind it: swathes of padded jackets. It was Instagram versus reality.

For her master’s project, Natacha de Mahieu felt the need to create something truly unique. Her genius move was to base that uniqueness on what she saw everyone do, giving it a simple but effective twist. She would take precisely the sort of photo that tens of thousands had already taken. But rather than trying to avoid the other people in view, in order to create an image of just one person surrounded by natural splendour, she would add more people.

Lac Blanc, as perceived by Natacha de Mahieu.

OVER THE FOLLOWING MONTHS, Natacha de Mahieu visited a number of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. At each place, she put her camera in a fixed, well-chosen position and shot a number of photographs at intervals for an hour. Back home in Brussels, the shots were combined into one image in a process that could take up to a week.

Her photographs, rather than being judgmental, are a playful invitation to think for ourselves. In my eyes, they describe reality more convincingly than any ”true” photograph ever could. Have a look, and let me know what you think.

Calanques National Park, as perceived by Natacha de Mahieu.

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