Lies, damned lies, and photographs
In an excellent post, John Edwin Mason looks at the Depression as seen through the lenses of Farm Security Administration photographers, and reminds us that the Depression did not always look as depicted in Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother:
Sometimes, people actually had fun, despite their circumstances — something, parenthetically, that novelists should bear in mind, but seem often to forget. Consider Marion Post Wolcott’s juke joint, a favorite photo of mine:
Photography has a unique ability to manipulate perception, a consequence both of its ability to freeze time and of the fact that whatever is recorded on the film must have existed in front of the lens, barring Photoshop or darkroom trickery. We tend to assume that the picture tells the story, forgetting that what we see is only what the photographer chose to place within the frame for about one millionth of one hour. Consequently, documentary photography has enormous power to shape our ideas of history.
Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother fits (and, in part, forms) our notion of the Okie experience in California. But Marion Post Wolcott’s attractive, smiling, and surprisingly well-dressed juke joint dancers hardly correspond with popular ideas of the black experience of the rural south, circa 1939. We forget that misery is never a constant.
Similar questions arise when considering Suzanne Opton’s “Soldier Billboard Project,” which I ran across today. The pensive, haunted face of a young American soldier, photographed not standing, but lying on the studio floor, certainly encourages us to “think about the psychological struggles of veterans and their families,” but it hardly encourages us, as Opton suggests, to draw our own conclusions. The conclusions it pushes us towards are her own; we begin, in this case, by forgetting that post-traumatic stress disorder afflicts less than one third of returning soldiers.
Nor are shutter timing and editing our only means of manipulating the straight photograph. Consider Oded Balilty’s 2007 Pulitzer-winning shot of a lone Jewish settler confronting Israeli riot police. It’s a brilliant photo. The whole weight of the composition falls on her: the slope of the terrain, the flood of riot police down the slope towards her, the spectators on the cliff behind the police, the smoke in the foreboding sky. But is there not something manipulative in the framing here? What is behind this woman? Balilty chooses not to show us. We’ll never know.
And we can’t fault Balilty, or Suzanne Opton, or the FSA photographers, for showing us only part of the truth, however people may complain that photographs manipulate or lie. The fault, if we’re too easily taken in, is our own. We should remember that everyone is only presenting their own point of view. It’s just that with photographs, we tend to forget.