CAN 1 Exercise 5.2

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth?

My response to exercise 1.1 in this module included reflection on the crisis of trust that has arisen in the past few years not just in photography, but across all forms of media and communication with the arrival of the so-called post-fact or post-truth world. The driving force in this development has been digital technology, which has generated tools that allow all forms of media – and especially photographs – to be created, edited or repurposed with ease, and has made these tools available to nearly everyone on the planet, along with channels of communication and distribution that allow the results to be published globally. The extent to which this has changed the way we access and consume all media, including photography, cannot be underestimated. It is a complete paradigm shift, from a world in which only a small elite had the means to generate and publish information to one in which every individual can communicate their message and even initiate a social or political movement.

As all voices have become potentially equal in reach, so have all voices become equal in questionability, in both literal and metaphorical senses. The pronouncements of politicians and even academics and expert commentators are now challenged as vigorously as those of the man or woman in the street, and the basic assumption of many people is that their claim to truth is equivalent. This disintegration of trust in traditional sources has been exploited by politicians such as Putin and Trump (Curtis, 2016) who have discovered that circulating fake “facts” attracts supporters who happily ignore any contradictory statements such politicians also make to deflect and disarm attempts to hold them accountable (Tillmans, 2018).

Where does truth in photography sit in this post-truth world? People who feel inclined to take a particular image at face value will do so; others will never be convinced of its claim to veracity. Photography no longer has any ontological relationship with truth, and this is both a philosophical point and a practical one. Anybody who owns a cameraphone today understands from direct personal experience that capture is just one stage in producing an image, and that it is only a partial truth, telling what they want it to tell and concealing what they don’t. They know that Instagram filters, Snapchat lenses and other simple editing tools can change the photograph into something completely different, and they understand that images in adverts and lifestyle magazines have been Photoshopped. They don’t believe, or even expect, photographs to be a true representation of reality. The ontological quality of truth in photographs has been replaced by the quality of malleability.

People also understand that context is important and that everything is open to interpretation. Thus images from trusted sources will have more credibility, but when the winning entry in 2018’s Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is disqualified for using a taxidermy specimen, we are reminded that there truly are no guarantees of truth. Long before Baudrillard, ancient sages told us that the world we experience is maya, an illusion, a construct of our own minds. Psychologists, too, understand that what we see is a product of our minds rather than our eyes, that gestalt is a learned process – something that Shore (2010, p.97) also recognises. In these contexts, coming to the understanding that truth is a construct is considered a process of enlightenment rather than a cause for concern, so perhaps this is how we should see the issue today. Reframed in this way, the universal loss of trust and confidence in photography and other forms of communication may actually signal the emergence of an enlightened global population.

References and resources

Curtis, A. (2016) HyperNormalisation. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fny99f8amM [accessed 02.05.18]
Shore, S. (2007) The Nature of Photographs (2nd ed.). USA: Phaidon
Tillmans, W. and Oetker, B. (2018) Jahresring 64: What Is Different? Germany: Sternberg Press.
Waterson, J. (2018) ‘Anteater in prizewinning photo is stuffed, say judges’. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/apr/27/winning-anteater-photo-disqualified-judges-agree-stuffed-marcio-cabral [accessed 02.05.18]
Wells, S. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). UK: Routledge.