Truth or Fiction?

—by Laurie ShoulterKarall for ASPP’s Midwest Chapter.

Recent articles regarding the misidentification of the facts surrounding a photograph of a Palestinian father holding his dead son in the Washington Post brought up the question most often posed in college journalism classes; if you cannot verify the truth or veracity of the facts, attribution or caption of a photographed subject, what should you do?

Journalists using the written word have long wrestled with this question while photographers/photo journalists have allowed the image to speak for itself. In this particular story, the caption attached to the photo blamed the child’s death on an Israeli airstrike. The caption helped to have the striking image picked up and published around the world. Days later, some but not all of the newspapers that published the picture printed a correction/retraction that the child’s death was actually the result of a Palestinian rocket that fell short of israel. The contextual change was in response to a report from the United Nations Human Rights Council though Hamas, the Israeli military and even the BBC refused to comment or confirm the report. http://tinyurl.Com/c9ml54e

The 2011 documentary, titled ‘Pictures Don’t Lie’, by Soledad O’Brien for CNNhttp://tinyurl.Com/bsylj34 explored the work of Civil Right’s photographer Ernest Withers. Recent documents identified Withers as a FBI informant from 1968 to 1970. Does this new information change the power of Wither’s images of Martin Luther King Jr.or the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike? Do the choices that Withers made in personal life have a direct connection to the images he made?

Are photographers solely responsible for the fact that images can and have been manipulated by outside influences, editors, newspapers, media organizations and other groups with differing political and social agendas? Many photo classes teach students that the very act of capturing a photograph involves their personal control and manipulation over how and what the photograph will reveal as it is being recorded. Students are taught that their control over the equipment, lighting and subject should be deliberate and reveal the choices and intentions they have made. This is often done in order to influence the way viewers perceive the pictured event, person or object.

Don’t we, as the public and viewers, also have a responsibility for questioning, or at the very least, considering the authenticity and factualness of the context of the photographs as well as the bias of the photographer? Fiction is defined as a concoction or fabrication. Clearly the images of the dead Palestinian child and Emmett Till’s corpse are not inventions or lies. Equally but not nearly as apparent is the fact that those photographs were created to intentionally provoke a response in or from the viewer.

Diane Arbus said “a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” Documentary photographs should raise our consciousness, contribute to the socio/political conversation and document the concerns of our times. However, perhaps it is time to revise the adage that photographs don’t lie and instead call a photograph what it truly is, a monentary representation of reality at that time.