Do photographs convey the truth? Photojournalism schools have whole courses that make up answers to this question. It is important for journalists who are writing to tell the truth, I think we would agree. It is impossible, “true”, but striving for an objective story allows me as the reader to think that I am making up my own conclusions. Questions arise: what did the writer leave out here? How were the quotes edited? The same questions arise for photography. Photojournalists agonize over retouching, cropping, context.
I do not do this agonizing, at least not in service of the truth. I am making some level of fiction with my photographs. My writing is creative and while I am telling you something about me, and, I am not (usually) (knowingly) lying, I am formulating an openly subjective perspective. The photograph in this post was recorded digitally and the cloud had that shape and that is what led me to stop the car and record the scene. It’s a funny cloud, like a spring, right? After I get the raw image I believe my job is to make art and to lead you to feel something. To that end, I developed the picture. I cropped it mercilessly, increased contrast, darkened the edges of the roadside, added a bicolor filter, increased the structure and sharpness of the mountain. I reduced the digital noise and I eliminated some tiny clouds in the top right and left corners. That was my perspective and every photograph and photographer has a perspective, even the most hard-boiled journalist who holds the camera a foot from his eye and shoots, which is the problem with truth telling and photography. My act of seeing something with a camera changes the truth about what I am recording. I have changed it to reflect my perspective on the truth. Photographers who own that reality have my respect. With respect to photographers trying to be objective I would also assert this:
Photographic truth is inversely proportional to the effort exerted to make a photograph tell the truth.
The harder a journalist tries to make just a straight shot without influencing me and the harder she asserts that what she is doing is objective, the more I have questions about what wasn’t photographed, how the contrast manipulated to convey a point of view, what the angle of light is doing to change my mind. The less a photographer makes a play for the truth, the less I doubt them and the more believable the photograph is. Purely fanciful and contrived photographs are completely believable for what they are and they do not hide anything. This photographer may have whimsy but she has no guile. Purely journalistic photos raise my suspicions and are, inherently I think, prone to lies.