Sunday 3 July 2016

People, Photographs, and Reality

A Deconstruction of Picture Post 13 - ‘The Worshippers’

Posted by Keith Tidman
Ludwig Wittgenstein succinctly observed in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “The picture is a model of reality.” But was it ever that; and is it still that?
Photos can be bland, or they can powerfully evoke. Pi’s Picture Post 13: ‘The Worshippers’ fell into the latter category—powerful, hauntingly moving. The photograph spotlights supporters of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump—what the posted text referred to as an ‘admiring throng’. The subjects in the photograph took on the persona not just as common supporters wanting to hear the regurgitation of policy positions, but potentially 'fans' celebrating celebrity. Or so it seemed.

At first blush, the supporters’ enthusiasm appeared almost over the top—perhaps why the text accompanying the Picture Post referred, in the opening words, to a ‘cartoonish air’ about the image. Those two words spoke volumes. The supporters really do appear absorbed in the presence of a celebrity-turned-presidential candidate. Yet photography captures reality only by means of analogy; and it always has a point of view—at some point, even at the (unintended) risk of transitioning to theatre. Meanwhile, what, and whose, reality political photographs capture often remains uncertain, even opaque. Made all the more challenging by how inspiration and aspiration—both the photographer’s and viewer’s—might affect the experience. An observation reinforced by the essayist Anais Nin, who poignantly noted, "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Even under the best of circumstances and with the best of intentions, photographs can sometimes prove unreal—and arguably, in the eyes of some, possibly unfair. They’re frozen moments in time and space, captured by one individual who's under intense pressure to quickly decide what’s important, and when. Given the fluidity of what happens in reality at any moment of, say, a public campaign appearance, eyeballs focused on what’s occurring may well be drawn by what's different, by what might set a photograph apart from the many others. In other cases, what gets captured boils down to simple serendipity. These are among the diverse possible circumstances in which photojournalists with serious, honest intent, including the creator of PP 13's image, perform their craft. Yet, as Marshall McLuhan noted, there’s a governing dynamic at play here, a reciprocity between photographer and camera that shapes outcomes: “We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.”

Whether it matters if political photographs are not so subtly edited, as some circulating around the Internet are, depends on circumstances. Hence there’s the question as to what reality do photographs reveal and, largely unintentionally, conceal. In photojournalism, the standard is fairly strict—though perhaps disputable. The public expects that the photograph has not been edited, beyond such acceptable techniques as cropping. And it is expected that there has been a good-faith effort to preserve content integrity. People view such images with a degree of automaticity, whereby trust suspends critical judgment. Expectations are that the image is as ‘true’ as possible to what was going on. But photographers are human. Also, the risk in photojournalism is that some interested third party surreptitiously, but brazenly, ‘hijacks’ and manipulates an image of an unsuspecting photographer, to advance a political or social agenda. Pictures, after all, can stir up emotions as much as words can.

Accordingly, photographic imagery has obviously been used, historically, for political and social purposes—whether to amplify or as a sleight of hand. Even for outright ‘propaganda’—both the malign kind and the benign kind. Photography is a powerful medium, subject to far-ranging purposes and broad interpretation—hence a rich source for shaping the message. And in turn for shaping history. There’s a distinctly nontrivial element of trust—especially given that some viewers might accept image content prima facie. This is true, even though the sense of reality that people take away from looking at photographs can be skewed, notably by any ambiguity as to an image’s intent—not different in that sense than other media. So what was going on with PP 13, as best we can tell? And is there evidence, on the Internet, that people have digitally doctored this original photograph to create permutations for their own (political?) purposes, to make events appear other than they were when the photograph at PP13 was snapped?

Indeed, one must tread warily in the morass of online political imagery. Online searches can locate other versions of the photograph that appear to have been manipulated, and not always deftly. By some person, or some group, over the course of the photo’s Internet lifespan. The result of apparent distortion sometimes therefore taxes people’s ability to connect with the image, as something may not seem quite right. The Pi text characterized the supporters’ reactions in PP 13 as ‘zany’—the manipulated versions of the photograph found online are made, in some cases, to appear all the more so. Did the perpetrators doctor these photos to advance a political agenda? Did they wish to mock, disparage, or even demonize others of a different political persuasion? Was it just a prank? Or were there other motivations? This is just one area in which political photographs need to be decoded.

Online there’s a panoply of other photographs purportedly manipulated, resulting in distracting memes. Whether all the photographs are indeed manipulated, or some are not and have simply been swept up in the hurly-burly of the Internet, is germane, of course. Yet it’s clear from these myriad images, whether edited or not, that there is an intimacy between image and viewer. Or, as Vilém Flusser observed in Towards a Philosophy of Photography, it’s evident “there is a general desire to be endlessly remembered and endlessly repeatable.” At the same time, people bring all sorts of predispositions (ideological, political, personal, experiential) to interpreting photographs. Internet searches serve as a trove of when and how some photographs are morphed into something other than the original. This morphing, mixed with viewers' potentially complex predispositions, can muddy the experience of viewing the photograph all the more.

The idea that a picture is a ‘model of reality’, which Wittgenstein claimed, has to be critically parsed to be even remotely true in the modern era, when a picture’s digits can be handily manipulated, subtly or clumsily, by just about anyone, often to enormously dramatic effect. This ability to manipulate images is not only ubiquitous—rearing its head in every corner, with its results shared virally around the Internet—it challenges the very premise of photo ‘realism’. Both reputable photographers and the public alike become unwitting victims, whose caution about photos’ provenance—and the supposed window on the world of ‘realism’ they offer—becomes rich fodder for dissection.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith, for an introduction to a world of make-believe. I wonder whether you could give the common folks some idea as to how one might begin with 'critically parsing' such an environment?

docmartincohen said...

I'm really struck by the new 'Celebrity' photos - which are as false when they are real, as they are when photoshopped. Because as Mister Sartre knew (beinga complete fake hmself), authenticity is difficult to achieve - and few would want it anyway.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

You underrate Sartre Martin. He knew what to fake. It strikes me how often philosophers would seem to take the gaps in philosophy and turn them into philosophy themselves. Sartre being a case in point.

Keith said...

Actually, to be clear, the words ‘critically pars[ed]’ squint back at Wittgenstein’s assertion that pictures are a ‘model of reality’. Even before and during his lifetime, long before digits flowed liberally and cheaply in every home and office, plenty of instances of doctored photographs were uncovered. They proliferated in the imagery of America’s civil war, in World War II, during the Cold War—among innumerable other events and situations of the past. The methods, not the intent, differed. So the ‘model of reality’ reference rings a smidgeon hollow. Or at least, it calls for qualification.

Since Wittgenstein’s lifetime, a growing paradox has appeared: On the one hand, people have become warier of the realism and provenance of politically, historically, and socially oriented photographs, vaguely sensing the risk of vulnerability to fakery (images not always being what they seem). On the other hand, to close the paradox’s circle, the powerful functionality of editing software, and its democratic ease of usability, has made image manipulation all the more omnipresent, with the effects potentially subtler and, if the tools are in the right (wrong?) hands, harder to spot.

To be equally clear, there’s no single, compressed how-to guide for discerning the provenance of a photograph that one can reach for on the Internet or on a bookshelf; better still, no such guide is needed. One can be sure that, should one desire to pursue the matter, the legions of people on the Internet will have already done the detective legwork (‘critical parsing’) for you, distinguishing what’s aboveboard and what doesn’t pass the smell test. Rare, if any, instances of the latter pass under the cover of darkness for long.

Of course, not all manipulated images are intended to be ‘believed’ on their surface anyway, nor is the intent always to hide the doctoring. The deliberately in-your-face manipulation may be part of making everyone feel like an ‘insider’. Alternatively, too, the aim may be deliberately evocative, to stir a reaction—good, bad, or ugly—for any number of purposes. In many cases of manipulated imagery, the practice is harmless; the stakes are trivial or nonexistent. In other cases, the practice is powerful, fueling messaging that spreads contagiously. Perhaps one handy takeaway is Vilém Flusser’s (abbreviated) admonition, that “The uncritical attitude is dangerous.”

To state the glaringly obvious, however, no single essay or comment can do more than venture a paper-thin slice of this multifaceted topic.

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