Home > photojournalism > Truth and the papparazi

Truth and the papparazi

November 30, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Consider this: a starlet is photographed with a musician, at a hockey game; she is smiling.

One week later, she is photographed with her boyfriend, on vacation; she is frowning.

And based on these two photographs, we get a tabloid story suggesting she’s about to split with the boyfriend and take up with the musician.

Can these pictures be telling us the truth?

Let’s make the assumption that these photos were taken at 1/250 second.

Each minute contains 15,000 exposures of 1/250 second.

Each hour contains 900,000.

How likely is it that said starlet also frowned with the musician, and smiled with the boyfriend, in some of those millions of 1/250 second exposures they spent in each other’s company?

Photographs don’t contain stories; we make up stories about them. Andre Kertesz said that photographs cannot lie, but liars can take photographs. And we can also arrange and discuss photographs to support any story we want to tell.

This is not exclusive to the tabloids and the papparazi, although they provide the most dishonest examples.

Consider Doug Ball’s famous shot of Robert Stanfield fumbling a football. Newspapers chose to run this photo over all the shots of him throwing, catching, smiling and whatever else. And this choice may have cost Stanfield the election.

Or consider Eddie Adams’s Saigon execution. The limits of the frame and of the exposure time conceal the fact that the victim of this execution was no civilian; he was a known VietCong fighter. But with that context removed, the photograph shows a soldier executing a civilian.

Or, for a more recent example, consider the crowds pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad. Shots from a more distant vantage showed how small those crowds actually were, suggesting a different story entirely.

In our much-ballyhooed digital age, we assume that the major ethical issues in photojournalism revolve around Photoshop. But they don’t, and they never have.

1/900,000 of an hour can’t really tell the truth about anything. If you need Photoshop to lie with a camera, you just aren’t trying very hard.

Categories: photojournalism
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