MIT OCW Documentary Photography Class — Writing Assignment 1

“Do Photographs Tell The Truth?”
Using On Photography as a taking off point, support or refute the argument that a photograph, which captures only a single instant in time, can never present an accurate, honest, representation of an event or situation.


While comparisons between photography and other pre-photographic graphic methods have been done, by Sontag and others, they are a useful starting point for answering the question, “Do photographs tell the truth?”.

I believe that a photograph can, if that is the intent, present an accurate and honest representation of an event or situation. In that respect, it is no different than other graphical methods of documenting the world as we know it.

At its simplest, photography depicts a noun — a person, place, or thing. “This is [a common or proper noun]” or in the absence of context simply, “This exists”. Portraiture is an example of a picture of a proper noun. A portrait, in whatever medium, is usually idealized or at least tries to present someone at their best. This is not the same as falsely presenting a portrait of someone else — it represents a specific person. It may show them well dressed, in good light, and with that gigantic blemish that always seems to appear at the least opportune time airbrushed or Photoshopped, but it shows a person at a certain time and a certain age, posing for a portrait. Within the context of a portrait, it is still honest and accurate because it is supposed to be a picture of someone at their best.

There is another level within portraiture which may be considered to be more “honest”. Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) deviated from the idealized, god-king representation of a pharaoh and ordered his likenesses to be more naturalistic (given the artistic constraints of the time) showing his elongated face, pot-belly, and slight limbs. Joseph DeCreux, portraitist for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and current internet meme sensation, depicted himself realistically in self-portraits, showing his receding hair, long nose, and crooked teeth. He believed that the outer appearance, particularly the face, was representative of a person’s character or personality (physiognomy). While either example may be more accurate in an absolute sense, it breaks out of portraiture and into documentary — it removes the context and imposes a different standard.

A purely documentary image, again regardless of medium, can be as honest in intent as the skill of the documenter allows. Early drawings by western explorers of the rhinoceros were not particularly accurate by today’s standards but they were honest and accurate given the drawing skills of the documentarian and the knowledge of biology at the time. The visual analogy to armor and the pebbled texture of the skin were stressed or exaggerated in order to convey the “sense” of the animal. If I take a digital photograph of a rhinoceros, must I leave the photograph as it was captured by the camera or can I boost the contrast to show you, the viewer, the texture of the skin? I know the texture of the skin. I saw it with my own eyes. Is it more or less honest to alter the photograph to show you something that I observed to be true? By “lying” a little bit (emphasizing the contrast in the photograph), I’m conveying more information. Is purity of what the camera sensor technology can capture more “honest” than showing a more visually informative modification? A better photographer, a better camera, or a better lens might be able to show you the texture of a rhinoceros’ hide without modification. I’m not in Africa or at the zoo to reshoot, so I have to work with the photograph I have.

Maps used to be sketched by hand and measured by dead reckoning and knotted ropes at sea. Measurement methods have improved over time but they don’t make earlier maps less “true” in the context of their time. If I give a map an accurate legend, does it matter that I added colors to represent the height of the terrain? I have altered something “pure” in order to convey more information. Is Google Earth less honest because a geo-referenced satellite image was digitally skewed to correct for a wide-angle lens and the curvature of the earth?

Intent matters. Sontag’s earlier essays compared photography to the written word and found photography to be less honest, less true. But words can inform, mislead, omit, or emphasize contrast, just as photographs can. Revisiting the earlier example, suppose you have never seen a rhinoceros and know nothing about it. If I write and describe a rhinoceros breathing fire, it is the same as painting or drawing a rhinoceros breathing fire or Photoshopping flames coming from a rhinoceros’ mouth. Photography is as accurate and honest as any other method of communicating if the photographer has the intent of accuracy and honesty and the technical skill to represent it. The same is true of the writer, the painter, and the sketch artist. Telling the truth depends on the intent and integrity of the person writing about, painting, drawing, or photographing the event or situation.



Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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