Week 3 Forum – Is Every Constructed Photograph a Lie?

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.


Cindy Sherman


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.


Source Reuters

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.

Week 5 – Power and Responsibility

In this weeks first forum we were asked to look at the photograph of the refugees crossing into Slovenia from Croatia taken by Jeff Mitchell shortly before the Brexit vote that was used by UKIP in a way totally unintended by the photographer, and to discuss the ethical judgements in relation to the taking of, publication and or use of photographs.  Refugees cross from Croatia into Slovenia in October 2015 (c) Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images https://goo.gl/gtrmU6 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

“Is it fair to depict vulnerable people in a political campaign without their explicit consent? Can the photographer object to the use of the image? What is the purpose of documenting the refugee crisis? And does it incite hatred?

“It is always uncomfortable when an objective news photograph is used to deliver any political message or subjective agenda, however the image in question has been licensed legitimately,” said Getty Images, but did not comment further.” (1)

“The photographic agencies sell the pictures, they never ask what they’ll be used for.

Newspapers use the pictures to make a point according to their political slant.

The photographer’s original intention isn’t even considered.

By adding a few words, Jeff’s intention was changed 180 degrees.

His picture had changed the situation all right.

Just not in the way he intended.” (2)

The Jeff Mitchell photograph reminds of the discussion and comments I made in the first week’s forum on the Global Image.  I doubted then whether an image can truly ever carry universally uniform meaning, and here is an image which in the photographer’s mind intended that outcome, but as the Trott blog above noted, a few words changed the intention completely.  Getty as the intermediary abdicated all responsibility as indicated in the Al Jazeera interview above.

So even the most ethical and responsible among us truly have no control once the rights to our images are released to someone else.  Until we as photographers can somehow imbed in our photographs the intention with which we took them, there will always remain the risk that those images will be misused. Photographs rarely can stand on their own, and the words that go with them matter.  Whomever controls the words can control the message of the photograph.  I suppose if we as photographers wanted to represent ourselves and with each image sold issued a contract with limitation on its use we could mitigate some of the risk, but in reality we would likely end up spending more time in solicitor’s office than on photo shoots.  And the risk would not disappear completely because there will always be the unscrupulous who will seek to improve their own fortunes at the expense of others.

Unfortunately, I believe this is just but one more symptom of a general decline in ethical standards across the globe in which moral responsibility is often seconded to the desires of greed and power.  We are inundated, no bombarded, with images constantly in print media and television trying to sell us something we likely don’t need, but which advertisers are trying to condition us to believe and want.  Economics and power are, and always have been, powerful human motivators.  The most cynical of views would argue since news outlets have grown into profit driven multimedia conglomerates with shareholders to satisfy, the decisions of should we or shouldn’t we publish seem often to made on whether or not it will increase revenue.  Certainly, this is not universally true, but it happens enough to create the situation in which Jeff Mitchell found himself.

Getty used the excuse that they licensed the image legitimately to absolve themselves of responsibility.  Should the licensing agreements be required to reflect the author’s intentions?  Could photographers or agencies survive economically if they did?  Once that photo is in the public domain, is it even remotely possible to control how an image is used?  One needs only to look at Facebook and other social media to see memes created from legitimately licensed images to realize it is probably not.

So for photographers what is the answer?  I think we can only keep taking photographs, do our best to photograph what we feel to be morally and ethically responsible, deal with generally reputable outlets for our work, and hope our work gets used within the bounds of the intentions we had when the image was captured; at least until we can figure out how to bury our captions 3 dimensionally behind or within the image.


SAFDAR, A., , Brexit: UKIP’s ‘unethical’ anti-immigration poster. Available: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/06/brexit-anti-immigration-ukip-poster-raises-questions-160621112722799.html (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. [Feb 27, 2018].



Week 5 – Ethics and Responsibility: My View


Jade (Feb 2018)


I was taught long ago that responsibility, accountability and authority (RAA) are inextricably linked.  If I accept responsibility, I therefore must be willing to be held accountable for that responsibility, but only to the extent for which I hold authority.  As a photographer, I have RAA until my image is passed into the hands of someone other than my own.  I may be able to retain some authority over the use of my image through a licensing arrangement, but I will never have any authority over a viewer’s interpretation of my work.

When I have a camera in my hand I am responsible for what or whom, and how I choose to photograph.  I believe I have the responsibility to photograph them honestly, hopefully always objectively, and that I am responsible for their well being in as much as possible during the photograph and after.  As such, I try to not to take images that are embarrassing or demeaning, or in any way make my subject intentionally uncomfortable.  When photographing wildlife, I interpret their tolerance of my presence as consent and an indication they are not disturbed or distressed.  If the species is rare or endangered, I have a responsibility to protect that location so it cannot be exploited.  I am fully accountable to my subjects for my actions, including which images I choose to publish and where I choose to publish.  When granting rights for use of my images, I will take steps to limit, where appropriate and possible, the uses of those images, fully recognizing this is an increasing difficult proposition.

I would like to hope that a publisher would be to an extent responsible to me and my intentions.  I realize in this day and age that is probably a naïve perspective, but I hold hope that there are still many ethical people and organizations in the world.