Andre Cantelmo Photography | How much authority do we give to a photograph?

How much authority do we give to a photograph?

February 05, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

From time to time a movie I've watched sticks in my head and hangs around for long periods of time, decades in fact. Zelig (1983), a Woody Allen film is such a movie. In this film Mr. Allen's image is inserted into real life historical footage. Along with cinematographer Gordon Willis a masterful job was accomplished long before the digital manipulation we are familiar with today was available. Fading and even scratches were applied to the stock to give it a realistic look. Good reasons exists for why we find these images so believable. First we have a deep seated belief that photographs are an accurate rendition of a moment, we trust photographs. This trust persists even though we all know photographs are often manipulated. Secondly, we judge photographs as truthful when they confirm our beliefs. The third reason is that we are not very good at telling a well done manipulated photograph from one that is not. Lastly, our minds are very good at retaining visual memories. Long after the textural context is forgotten, the image remains in our memory. Perhaps this trait goes all the way back to our pre-language ancestors, and their survival strategies.


The internet is full of manipulated celebrity photographs. While most are not very skillful in technique, a few are so well done that only a reverse internet search can reveal that it is faked. Proving an image is faked is not easy, but it is possible. Proving an image is truthful is much more difficult. When we enter the political arena, the potential for manipulated images influencing public opinion is very high, and rewarding if you can pull it off. As stated above, images tend to be retained in memory even when we know they are inaccurate, as long as they confirm a belief we hold dear. The times we live in make capturing and transmitting photographs very quick. The citizen photographer is everywhere and images of events appear on the nightly news in lightning speed. The process that news agencies use to vet the accurate image from one that is not can be a weak link in the publishing chain.


Photographers have always manipulated their work. That is what makes them creative. Camera angle, lens choice, depth of focus, and contrast are some of the first controls that are available to the photographer. Lets not forget the stories of Mathew Brady allegedly moving bodies during his Civil War years work to make his photos more dramatic. The darkroom process is where lots of other tools come into play also. These days programs like Adobe Photoshop make manipulation a cleaner process, that can yield very convincing results.


There is lots of research being done studying human memory. It seems that the way we remember things can be unreliable. All you have to do is ask a detective about witness reliability. Our senses take in a lot of information, then as it sits in our short term memory vault it can change. Photographs can jog the memory into recall, however what if the said photo is not accurate? How much authority do we give to a photograph?


This is where I am supposed to tie up this blog with a bit of wisdom. There is not a lot that I see we can do about the way we perceive the images that flood our minds. Its been said “question everything”, and that is most likely a wise suggestion. When looking at images, keep in mind that the creator of the work has a point of view, as do whomever is editing and publishing it. Skepticism is another tool that should filter your intake when viewing documentary photographs. Stand back for a second and observe your thinking process. Your intuition will sometimes cast a doubt that something seems just a bit off. Don't be so eager to dismiss that little spark. Let it register in your mind for another day.


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