“Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth? Consider both sides of the argument and make some notes in your learning log.”
We like to think of photography as fact, an immutable record of the truth. Yet mistruths, embroideries of truth and ambiguitous creation and use of images has always been hot on the heels of each photographic development. First Fox Talbot negative – 1837, portrait of Hippolyte Bayard as drowned – 1840.
What appears in front of the camera may well have actually happened, but then the work is presented in an untrue context. The camera gives us another way to tell stories, and as we seem to be hard-wired to see photographs as truth, as evidence, it’s too compelling to avoid using cameras to construct “evidence” for our own narratives rather than simply recording the truths in front of us. We’ve also established that everyone constructs their own meaning for an image that they see, so even “truthful” images can be read separately from any intended meaning.
For me, the advent of social media has meant that for some time now I’ve been more open-minded about the “truth” of the images in front of me. I think we’ve all seen the weight-loss/supplement before/after diptychs which either feature two different people or have one person in one picture with perfect posture sucking in their stomach, and letting it all hang out in the second. It’s not simply a case of filtering for fake pictures, quite often the stories that they accompany are less than entirely objective too (and yes, objectivity being another elusive truth). Incidentally, my writing this was just interrupted by my daughter asking “Who really wrote the Lemony Snicket books and are they still alive?” I took the quick and dirty route to Wikipedia only to have her rebuke me with “But Wikipedia lies, Mum”, leading to a demonstration of online fact cross-checking. She makes an excellent point however, even at nine.
Digital photography is a truly creative media, in the same way as writing and painting. Like these, the “truths”, if any, that a work tells will be a function of the intention of the author, the reading of the audience, and the various layers of context that are ascribed to it. A photographic print or jpg is about as truthful per se as a piece of knitting – I don’t think it’s a correlation that we can make any more, there are too many variables. It’s always been the case for analogue photography too – there are simply too many examples through history to list, and no real hope of the practice stopping any time soon (North Korea for example is developing Photoshop skills along with nuclear weapons).
As authorship of images becomes more slippery (for example use of “appropriated” images in arts photography and “stolen” images in news photography depending on your perspective); I wonder if one of the most essential truths of all is under question – exactly who is the author of a work?