The Validity of a Photograph

A comparison of two articles which pose the same question

The underlying context of a photograph can be shaped to have truth or falsity.

What makes an idea true or false? Specifically, a portrayal of some kind, whether that be of nature, society, and the like — how can a photograph be true or false?

Two articles, “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” by Errol Morris, and “Curbing Nature’s Paparazzi” by Bill McKibben, both pose this question. Let us compare them.

These two articles concentrate on the level of truthfulness that lies behind a photograph; how its context, portrayal and integrity reveal if the photo is displaying a truthful scene or event, or if it was merely fabricated to shape a false narrative.

While McKibben’s article focuses specifically on the truthfulness of wildlife photography, and Morris’s article just focuses on the idea of truth behind a photo in general, both authors believe that the context of a photo is often manipulated to comply with the views of those who are publishing it.

The validity of a photograph can be stretched in many different directions. The main focus of Errol Morris’s “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire”, a New York Times article published in 2007, is this very concept: the idea that the truth behind a photo is whatever the person or company putting it forth says it is.

In this way, the context of a photo may be fabricated to align with the beliefs of the author or material it appears in, such as a book, article, movie, or other form of work. Morris goes into great detail discussing a photo’s value, stating:

Here, Morris is claiming that without a caption or some kind of statement about the photograph, the photo has no context and thus there is no truth behind it. However, when a picture does have a caption or statement of some kind, it gains context, and this context can be stretched to display ‘true’ or ‘false’ values about the picture.

Morris also states that “Truth or falsity ‘adheres’ not to the photograph itself but to the statements we make about a photograph”, meaning that a picture itself cannot be true or false unless the agents producing the photo (i.e. the newspaper using it in its publication) build a false-narrative context around the image merely to prove a point that aligns with their agenda.

The primary example Morris uses in his article is a picture of the Lusitania, a British ship which was sunk by the Germans during World War I, and eventually resulted in the U.S. joining the war. He displays a picture of the ship with no caption, no context whatsoever, prompting the reader to ‘imagine’ what the image is showing. To an uneducated or unaware reader, it could be any old ship.

However, Morris then displays the same image with a caption, “The Lusitania”. Now the image has context, making it easier for the reader to comprehend. Morris later states that “It is also interesting how a photograph quickly changes when we learn more about what it depicts, when we provide a context, when we become familiar with an underlying story”, and his Lusitania photograph example exemplifies this overall point.

The picture Morris uses in his article, a photo of the Lusitania.

Similar to “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” but different in its own light is Bill McKibben’s article “Curbing Nature’s Paparazzi”. The article discusses in-depth the issue of truth behind a photo, but specifically discusses this problem in nature photography.

McKibben starts off by highlighting how nature photographers have helped normal viewers ‘see’ and understand the wild, a facet of reality which is unknown to most. However, he quickly dives into the negative, addressing how wildlife photographers are often forced to manipulate the animals to get the shots they want and therefore ‘fabricate’ the images to portray nature much more dramatically than it really is; as an example, McKibben states:

Another problem McKibben brings up about the false nature of wildlife photography is that it fails to show the world’s actual problems, making it seem as if the species of the world aren’t really in danger of going extinct, when most actually are.

In essence, wildlife photographers bend the truth by only showing the viewers what the companies who produce the documentaries want them to see, making many of the photos and videos they produce ‘false’. In this sense, an image can therefore be ‘false’.

While both articles tackle the issue of the validity of a photograph, not in terms of its source material and what it is portraying, but rather its context and how the narrative behind it is shaped, the mannerisms behind their claims are different.

Firstly, the rhetorical strategies used by the two authors differ dramatically: Morris has a descriptive, slow-paced rhetorical style, which is defensive and interrogative in its nature, and focuses on pathos rather than ethos and logos; meanwhile, McKibben has a fast-paced and provocative style, composed of a healthy mixture of ethos, logos and pathos. Similarly, Morris relies heavily on using first person point-of-view, often posing a question to the reader and then answering it as himself; McKibben does not do this in his piece.

Secondly, Morris focuses entirely on the concept of the truth behind a photograph, never shifting to prove a higher or deeper point, while McKibben eventually shifts to the idea that it is unacceptable to censor ideas, using nature photography to back up this claim.

He states that while wildlife photographers may be manipulating nature to get the picture their company wants them to get, which is negative, it is unacceptable for the company to deny the photographer’s right to take the picture, as that would be considered censoring creative expression.

To support this claim, McKibben uses the example of a company telling a wildlife photographer to refrain from taking any more pictures, because they already have enough, “but this, we intuitively feel, is not fair. Who am I, or you, to tell someone else how he can or can’t make a living?”. This is a concept that is completely absent from Morris’s article, as he makes no reference to the relationship between the truth behind a photo and the censorship of creative expression. However, the counterpoise in both authors’ claims remains.

In the eyes of the two authors, it is undeniable that a photograph may very well be “true or false”, but only if the context behind it is purposely misrepresented to portray a specific narrative or point of view, that differs from the subject of the photo.

Both articles back up this claim with a variety of examples: Morris primarily uses a photo of the Lusitania, while slowly providing context throughout the article which alters the narrative behind the photo, and McKibben fully relies on the ethics of nature photography while eventually connecting this idea to the censorship of creative expression.

Overall, while McKibben’s article focuses specifically on the truthfulness of wildlife photography, and Morris’s article simply focuses on the idea of truth behind a photo in general, both authors believe that the context of a photo can be misrepresented to comply with the views of those who publish it.

In this way, a photo can, in fact, be true or false.

Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.

Native New Yorker. Pizza, Sports, Games, Life. Writing about whatever my heart desires. Follow me for more articles!

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