When will we stop believing in photographs?

PICTURES DON’T LIE, some people say. But ever since the invention of photography, photos have been doctored (above, you see the first officially known example, from 1865 when the head of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln was mounted on the body of former vice president John Calhoun, probably to make Lincoln look more statesmanlike) … and just as long, there’s been concern that maybe one day, people will no longer believe in them.
The choice between believing in photos or not, however, is a false dilemma – based on the misapprehension that a photograph is an objective message. It is not the photograph you should believe or disbelieve, it is the photographer – or whoever else laid hands on the picture on its way to the viewers.

Throughout the history of art, right up to the mid-19th century when photography had its breakthrough, all kinds of pictures – paintings, drawings, etc – carried the mark of their creator and were therefore known to be subjective expressions. Look at these four portraits of Søren Kierkegaard and see what I mean. It is obvious that the artists saw Kierkegaard quite differently and all four depictions can hardly be objective. Or “true”, if you will.

Back then, it must have been obvious to everyone that a visual message could not automatically be trusted. Whether to believe what it told you or not would have to depend on your trust in the messenger – the artist.

Then came photography. Contrary to earlier types of pictures, a photograph is, by definition, an indexical image – a direct, mechanical transmission of what we can see, apparently unaffected by human interpretation, ”free from the sin of subjectivity”, as the French film critic André Bazin put it. Like a footprint.

No doubt Bazin and his likeminded followers have been aware that any photographer makes a personal interpretation of the objective reality merely by focusing on a particular fragment of his or her visible environment and omitting the rest. But that is a fact you’ll have to ignore if you want to pursue the idea of photography as an objective means of expression. An idea which led to the use of photographs as ”proof” … such as proof of what you look like, as in your passport, or a proof of where you were at a specific date and time, as disclosed by surveillance cameras.
All around the world, photographs are still generally accepted as documentations of reality, we expect them to tell ”the truth”, and so far, I’ve seen very little indication that these policies are about to change – even though the way photographs are being handled by ”common people” is currently undergoing a veritable revolution. 

When Adobe Photoshop entered the scene, altering photographs became much easier. That was thirty years ago. Still, we intuitively believe in almost every photo we see. We somehow manage to keep assuming that it represents reality, that what the photograph shows us is ”true”, usually without even considering that it may not be.
However, it becomes increasingly clear that this is entirely a matter of trust. Today, almost everyone knows that if somebody wants a photograph to tell a lie – or convey ”alternative facts”, to borrow a phrase from modern politics – making it do so is easy as apple pie.
That knowledge has to affect our expectations and assumptions in some way. Actually, it’s a small wonder that we still basically believe in photographs.

The democratization of photography, and photo editing, helps pushing the borders. Instagram is one example. With its abundance of filters, the original idea of Instagram was to become everyone’s tool to alter their own reality, like the way they look. In most democratic countries, we may have generally trusted mass media (citizens in other parts of the world obviously haven’t) but what reason could we possibly have to trust every Instagram user? With Instagram, people show us what they would like their world to look like, not how it actually looks. That there’s a gap between the two is a fact to which we have grown accustomed, and largely accepted.

The gap turned into a genuine problem last year when Rebecca Reusch disappeared. The German police used the photo to the right, from Rebecca’s Instagram profile, for their missing person posters. After a while, her sister went on the news to explain that Rebecca actually looked more like the photo to the left. So if you were out trying to find her, it must have been pretty hard to know what to look for.

As mentioned above, we may have trusted our mass media, but that also seems to be changing, at least when it comes to some news organizations. Have a look at this image, used by Fox News to describe recent Black Lives Matter protests – and alleged rioting – in the city of Seattle.
That the image was composed from three different photographs, taken at different places and times, becomes evident when you’ve watched it for just a little while longer than the second or two it was on-screen, as a background ”photo” behind Fox’s news host. But the after-image it must have left in the minds of Fox viewers is that this was what Seattle looked like during the BLM demonstrations.
The fact that the news channel had to use photo montages (this is just one example) suggests that reality might have been a different one, and probably more peaceful than the right-wing news channel liked to show their audience.

Using photography this way is still highly controversial and makes a lot of people angry. That may reduce the pace with which things are changing. But I feel almost certain that they will change, eventually. You can’t keep trusting someone who’s repeatedly caught telling a lie.

That will mean the end of an era. The era of believing in images, a period of visual innocence stretching over almost two centuries, is bound to be replaced by a back-to-normal situation of trusting (or distrusting) the messenger, rather than the message itself.

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