Photographic Truth Claim

Considering my Truth Assignment and trying to find the truth in an object I have looked at some other photographers to find their opinion.

It appears that as photography has gone digital and it has become so much easier to manipulate images critique of what the truth is has caused many critics to question the truthfulness and honesty of digital photographs.

In his paper What’s the Point of an Index? or, Faking Photographs Tom Gunning claims that traditional methods of photography are more truthful. That they are more honest and a closer reflection of reality than modern methods. He appears to believe that light affecting chemicals on paper is somehow less open to manipulation than digital data about about light.

Gunning also talks about a photograph’s indexicality and how closely a photograph resembles the person or object that it represents.

Susan Sontag suggests that the possibility of a truthful photograph is what drives us to try to convert our experiences into images, to immortalise and ‘make real what one is experiencing’. She says this is particularly relevant when it comes to world travel.

Sontag also talks about bureaucratic cataloguing and how we perceive certain photographs to hold more truthful information than others, for example passport photographs and driving licences which allow authorities to monitor and record our movements and activities.

However, Sontag also highlights an issue with repeatedly capturing and viewing ‘reality’ in images which can make the image appear to be less real. Particularly with regard to images of war and atrocity, she says it makes the “horrible seem ordinary – making it appear familiar, remote… inevitable”

Thinking along the same lines is Jean Baudrillard who claims that the more time we reproduced or duplicate an object the less real the object becomes, creating a kind of indifference to the object and eventual ‘extinction of the original’.

Baudrillard goes on to suggest that truth and reality are illusions, that illusions reign and that we should respect illusions and appearance and give up the illusory quest for truth and reality.

Roland Barthes on the other hand, in Photographic Truth and Evidence claims that photographing humans makes them less real and truthful. He says “Once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing’, I instantaneously make another body for myself, transform myself in advance into an image”.

Charles Sanderson Pierce talks about photographs being signs that are either icons, symbols or indices. He says that they are indices because through the mechanical process of using a camera images are forced to correspond point by point to nature.

Sturken and Cartwright though suggest that this is questionable in the book Visual Culture and Public Policy:Towards a Visual Policy by Victor Bekkers and Rebecca Moody. Simply because cameras are seen as tools and something that is neutral doesn’t mean that the image taken is an exact replica of reality. Thy say it is an analogy of reality and question its use as forensic evidence.

They say that images are a version of reality determined by the decisions and assumptions made by the photographer including lighting, lens, aperture, shutter speed and camera angle used. They point out that as well as the photographer’s influence, the viewer also has an interpretation of the truth created from his own perspective, values and principles. In addition the viewer can’t always consider the context that the photo was taken in because they may not know it.

Personally I think I side with Sturken and Cartwright. I’m not sure that any photograph can tell the complete and honest truth without influence or bias on the part of the photographer and the viewer. I know that several photographers can look at the same scene or object and each will take a different picture, each will be showing the truth in their own way.

The set of images below, taken by John Hillard illustrate how one photographer saw one scene in four different ways. Each photograph has been cropped to suggest different ways that the person died. If all of the images are overlapped with the body in the middle it gives a much more honest representation showing that all four causes of death could be possible.

Causes of Death, John Hillard Circa 1970


And then there is the influence created by post production processes. These two images are from the same photograph, used on two different publications, but looking very different and giving a very different interpretation of what is going on.

OJ Simpson

To conclude, I think that the still life photograph I took a few days of an egg cup shows some truth. It shows the shape, texture and style of the egg cup but the way it has been lit, the angle the photo has been taken from and the camera settings used have all been decided by me and my preferences. My purpose in creating this photo was to seek the truth and show the real egg cup but as Baudrillard says perhaps the truth and reality really really are illusions.


I think that Lewis Hine put it best when he spoke to the National Child Labor Committee in 1909. He believed that photographs were a symbol of reality, not reality, and he warned that “unbounded faith in the integrity of photographs is often rudely shaken,” because “while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.” (cited in Marien 2002, p234).

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