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The Alteration Fallacy

There seems to be a generalized sense that digitally manipulated photographs do “not wholly reflect the reality they purported to show,” as the New York Times put it (see post below). On the other hand, photographs that are not digitally altered are thought to reflect that reality–the obverse reasoning which may be even more dangerous.

What if the “reality” the photograph is said to reflect is an unreality, such as President George W. Bush posing on an aircraft carrier in front of a sign that says “Mission Accomplished” when the war in Iraq was spiralling out of control? Would that unquestioning photograph of him in a flight suit announcing a new era be said to “wholly reflect the reality [it] purported to show”? Who are we kidding?

An unaltered photograph showing an unreality is thought to be genuine, while an altered photograph (perhaps even one exposing the manipulation of the photo opportunity) is not. As long as the photograph is not tampered with, it doesn’t seem to matter if the reality the photograph is supposed to be conveying is nowhere to be found.

Why don’t editors and readers get as upset about the thousands of staged events which people in power constantly create and photographers dutifully record? Or the ill-conceived daily assignments requiring photographers to make pictures that support a point of view which they have no idea is true or false?

An unaltered photograph does not prove that a particular reality exists. It is an interpretation that reflects the photographer’s point of view as well as that of the subject, not an objective proof of a specific version of reality. The issue of digital manipulation can be, and often is, used as a red herring.

One Comment

  1. Giovanni DB wrote:

    I think is important to make a difference between “reality” and “truth”. I do think a non-manipulated photograph shows a cropped reality but does it tells the truth? A manipulated photograph for sure does not show the reality, that said it may show the truth (Eugene Smith being a good example of that).

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink

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