Opinionista Ivo Vegter 26 June 2018

The camera never lies, but photographers do

Photographs evoke emotion. They illustrate; they manipulate. Whether they record fact, however, depends strongly on context, and is not easy for the viewer to determine. Photography is an expressive medium, through which good photographers can say almost anything they want.

In 1987, that great philosopher of the modern age, Michael Franks, said, The Camera Never Lies.

I kid. He didn’t say it. He sang it. As is common even with great philosophers, Franks was not the first to come up with the idea. In 1982, Bucks Fizz went to the top of the UK charts with My Camera Never Lies.

According to a phrase dictionary, the notion that a camera cannot lie can in some form or another be traced back to 1859, not long after photographs became widely available to the public. It was a tempting illusion: that because a photograph directly captures a scene, unlike the interpreted image of a painting or sketch, it is a more “honest” medium.

But even in the 19th century, people knew it wasn’t true. Robert Louis Stevenson called the idea a “melodrama principle” in 1896. A year earlier, a newspaper story ran:

Photographers, especially amateur photographers, will tell you that the camera cannot lie. This only proves that photographers, especially amateur photographers, can, for the dry plate can fib as badly as the canvas on occasion.”

Why they picked on amateur photographers is a mystery to me, because professionals are far, far better at lying with photography. Cesar Romero, the great Hollywood actor who is reputed to have popularised the phrase, said, “They say the camera never lies. It lies every day.”

Nobody in the acting, fashion, celebrity, tabloid or advertising industries would have argued this, even long before digital photo manipulation became widespread. A simple change in lighting could make a celebrity look beautiful, or haggard, depending on the tabloid photographer’s intent.

The setting and context of a photographic subject can be changed simply by framing or changing the angle of the shot. Filters, lenses and exposure settings can dramatically alter the appearance of photographs. And a caption can say anything at all about the photograph it accompanies.

Yet somehow, press photography escapes the sceptical view most people have of photography in less exalted places. Perhaps that is because photo manipulation is frowned upon and usually punished when discovered by reputable news publications. It isn’t rare, however. In 2015, the chairperson of the World Press Photo jury reported that 20% of the finalists were disqualified over photo manipulation.

In this climate, it is ironic that Time magazine constructed its latest front page from two photographs, removed from their backgrounds and juxtaposed for editorial effect. It shows a crying immigrant girl, facing a stern, indomitable US president Donald Trump, with the headline, “Welcome to America”.

In a story accompanying the photograph, we were told the girl was carried away screaming by US Border Patrol agents. The cover story headline notes the administration’s “border separation policy”, under which the children of illegal immigrants who are detained are separated from their parents and taken into the custody of the state.

The girl became the face of the recent controversy over US immigration policy. The photograph featured in newspapers around the world, and was used to raise millions of dollars in charity funds.

What the Time cover does not show, according to the Washington Post, is that the girl pictured was never even separated from her mother. The mother was standing right next to the child, and they are together still. Time magazine had to issue a correction about the false “carried away screaming” claim. It was made up.

The reason the child was crying was that it was late at night and she was tired and thirsty. Another reason might be that her mother took her on a long trek to a foreign country from which she’d been deported before, without as much as informing her husband, the child’s father. She left him behind in Honduras with what he calls “a good job” and her three older children, to take her youngest on a trip for which he says he would never risk his life. She hardly looks or sounds like someone in need of asylum, in this interview with her husband.

Of course, Trump did promise “zero tolerance” on illegal immigrants (a policy on which he has since relented). The consequence of that policy indeed was the removal of some 2,300 children from parents who were detained for crossing the border into the US illegally. So what Time claimed the photograph showed did happen in other cases, and could have happened in theory. But it didn’t.

There’s a debate to be had in the US about illegal immigration. As a supporter of open borders, policed only to keep out criminals and armed invaders, I strongly oppose current US policy on this issue. But if you are going to restrict immigration, there is a debate to be had about how you deal with illegal immigrants humanely. There’s also a debate to be had about how to care for the children of illegal immigrants who are detained pending deportation hearings.

But contrary to the partisan collage on the cover of Time magazine, featuring a photo that does not show what Time claimed it did, that debate long predates Trump’s determination to enforce existing US immigration policy. Dealing with children at the border was a crisis under former US president Barack Obama, too, and he, too, separated families. As an Obama-era official told the Daily Beast, “The choices are all terrible.”

Instead of contributing to a necessary debate, Time has merely manufactured outrage, exposing itself as untrustworthy and partisan. The press camera lies all the time.

In 2015, the World Press Photo award was stripped from Giovanni Troilo, after his series entitled The Dark Heart of Europe, purportedly shot in Charleroi, Belgium was found to contain staged shots, at least one of which was not even taken in Charleroi.

The roads, once blooming and neat, appear today desolated and abandoned,” wrote Troilo, according to Laura Mallonee writing in the art forum HyperAllergic. She says he went on to say that “perverse and sick sex, race hate, neurotic obesity and the abuse of psychiatric drugs seem to be the only cures…”

The town’s mayor was furious, according to Mallonee, saying Troila’s work was “a serious distortion of reality that undermines the city and its inhabitants, as well as the profession of photojournalist”.

One of the photographs purportedly showed a dingy lover’s lane, but was staged with the help of the photographer’s cousin. A careful observer will note that a remote-control flash was concealed within the vehicle, and might wonder why someone would park a car to have sex with all the lights, including the brake lights, blazing.

Wartime photography is not immune to the perfidy of photographers seeking fame by feeding into political partisanship. Scandals erupt about actual photo manipulation, such as when Reuters had to fire photographer Adnan Hajj and remove from sale 920 of his photographs after it was discovered that some of them were doctored to make Israeli attacks during its war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 look worse than they were.

But photographic fraud by newshounds gets much subtler and harder to detect. In an infamous case, the media appeared to operate as lapdogs to a public relations agent for one of the combatant sides. It involves a supposed rescue worker in Qana, during the same war, who was photographed an astonishing number of times by an astonishing number of photographers from an astonishing number of angles in an astonishing number of locations at widely different times brandishing the very same child’s corpse.

The numerous photographs, when seen together, are almost certainly staged for maximum effect by agents of Hezbollah, with pliant photographers and camera people merely following directions. This suggests the problem might be alarmingly widespread.

Environmentalism is another front in the war for photographic truth. Late last year, I described the case of a National Geographic photograph and video which purport to show a polar bear starving because of a lack of sea ice on which to find food.

The problem with this photograph is that it is anecdotal, and there is no reason to believe that all polar bears, or even many of them, are suffering the same fate as the one in the picture. It took National Geographic more than six months to admit it, but they finally changed the captions on the video to reflect the fact that they couldn’t really say why the bear was starving.

In fact, the Worldwide Fund for Nature reports that polar bear numbers are declining in only one of the ten polar bear populations for which there are data. Two are increasing, and the remainder are stable. The photograph and video are not representative of what they purport to show. They are not news. They are propaganda.

The same happens with oil slick birds. Every time there is an oil spill, you’re sure to see birds slick with oil. It’s been de rigeur for news reporting for over half a century.

This example is, again, from National Geographic. It claims to depict a bird caught in the slick after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded while drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Reportedly, more than 8,000 sea birds, turtles and marine mammals were found injured or dead in the six months after the spill. Which raises the question, is that a lot? How many birds, turtles and marine mammals are there in the region? A million? Ten million? One hundred million?

A photograph of an oil-slicked bird, no matter how tragic, does not tell us anything beyond the fact that some animals probably died. It is unrepresentative and anecdotal evidence, from which we can make few, if any, meaningful conclusions.

Here’s a gallery of staged or otherwise fake photographs that have become iconic, but do not show what they appear to show. That candid picture of Depression-era workers on a beam of the Rockefeller Centre in New York? Staged. We don’t even know who the photographer was, because there were a whole bunch of them. Iwo Jima? Staged. That famous Spanish Civil War photo of a loyalist getting shot? It didn’t happen where the title said it did.

Every time a photographer takes a shot, whether it is staged or not, he or she has a certain outcome in mind. Many are dedicated to documenting news as objectively as they can, but ultimately, all are subjective in some way. Often, the photographer’s goal is to to promote a point of view, to lay blame, to further a narrative, to play partisan politics, or to evoke an emotional response in viewers that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. Sometimes, the goal is just to win a big prize of internet clicks.

Even photographs that aren’t staged ought to be viewed critically. Choices of framing, cropping and lighting all affect what we see. Essential context can easily be removed, just by taking a shot from a different angle, in order to make a point more general than the photograph actually warrants.

Ultimately, all photographs constitute anecdotal evidence. They can, at best, show that something happened. They cannot show how often something happens, or why something happens, or how to prevent it from happening (or encourage it, as the case may be).

Photography is not neutral. It is a means of expression. It is emotive, not rational. When viewing news photographs, ask yourself: what does the photographer wish to express? DM

Gallery

While we have your attention...

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.

Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.

Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.


Stimulus Package

Ramaphosa steps up to economic realities with R50bn package

By Greg Nicolson

There are more skin cancer cases related to tanning beds than there are lung cancer cases to smoking.