Are photographs in general and constructed photographs in particular “lies.” Perhaps it is instructive to begin with the dictionary definition of ‘lie’: a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive: an intentional untruth; a falsehood.
As I wrote in a prior article, no photograph can present truth, but that does not make every photograph a lie. A lie is predicated with intent and it does not follow that every photograph by every photographer was made with the intent to deceive. In fact, I believe, for most the intent is exactly the opposite; that is, most desire to represent a reality as they see it. Heavily constructed photographs quite often make it obvious that it is not intended to represent reality and therefore, in keeping with the notion of intent, it is not a lie any more than a painter creating a scene is lying. There are inherent limitations in the medium that make it impossible to recreate exactly what was in front of the lens, but technology keeps pushing and 360-degree cameras and holography will begin to challenge traditional 2-dimensionality. Where it gets problematic, is where the intention in capture or publication of the photograph is to deceive.
I think of heavily constructed photographs much in the same way I think of paintings. They are intended to be artistic in many cases and they are creations from the imaginations of the photographers. It seems that often, even though there may be a degree of indexicality, something in the photo clues the viewer to the fantasy, joke, mood, or paradox it posits, and we then treat it as an artistic expression rather than a documentary photograph. There seems in these cases to be no intent of deception. The following two photos, the first by Sherman and the second by Rosler are not photos that would fool anyone into thinking they were meant to be realistic and purely documentary.
Martha Rosler – House Beautiful
Publications (traditionally respected and tabloid), social media and individuals and organisations have discovered it is possible to ‘weaponize’ photography to fit their desired narratives to influence their faithful and persecute their perceived enemies. Divisive politics, tabloid journalism and an erosion of civility and humanity are both caused and furthered by the highly selective use of photographic weapons. In the example below, an editor made a conscious choice to use the top photograph which carries a very different and quite inaccurate depiction of ‘reality’ and it seems clear there was a deliberate intent to deceive. The photographs were taken as Prince William was leaving the hospital with the Duchess of Cambridge following the birth of their third child. He is quite obviously, as shown from the perspective of the second frame, indicating the number 3, while the perspective chosen in the first frame would connote and entirely different message. Was the first frame real? Yes, from that photographer’s vantage point it was what was seen, but was its out of context use disingenuous, and deliberately deceptive? I think that it was.
The problem here is not one inherent to the photographic medium, but rather the ethics of those who practice photography and users of photographs. Photographs are just an inanimate thing. They hold no special powers on their own. They are only useful, destructive, pleasing, horrifying when they are in the hands of humans and when they are presented in some context. If the ethics of photographer, publisher or social media user are questionable then the photograph can be misused like any other tool. And like any other enterprise where power, money, or fame are in play photography is subject to abuse by those who would use it, or allow it to be used unethically.