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The Photograph never lies

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The photograph has been part of the media for over a hundred years. It is one of the major ways of communication for the press, and can prove a valuable addition to an article. The question posing whether a photograph never lies, has been one that can be traced back decades. The doctoring of film and negative has led to the answer being often, yes. As we advance into a digital age, it is only to clear to see the ease at which photos can be enhanced. But even before the digital revolution, enhancing photographs was equally possible.

Stalin in post Lenin Russia was often accused of changing photographs so as to pretend he was Lenin’s right-hand-man. It was claimed he enhance pictures to deliberately show Stalin standing behind Lenin on a stage, at political rallies that he never even attended. But this question has a much deeper meaning; we know that in an age of advancing digital technology that photographs can be manufactured to illustrate anything. Be this is a person beside a famous monument in a country they have never set foot in or a deceased person holding today’s newspaper.

The study of communication and media studies lends itself very well to that of photography. The press is a huge part of the mass media, and photographs we see in newspapers can often become “more imperative than writing, they impose meaning at one stroke, without analysing or diluting it’. ” 1 (Cohen & Young, 1973, p176). But often it is the personal attraction to an image that can make it so powerful. An article about a murdered family, can be made all the more dramatic with one picture. The juxtaposition of the happy smiling family, often in a stereotypical ‘family’ portrait (dinner table, opening Christmas presents etc. , is in stark contrast to the reality that now sadly befits them.

As an observer you are merely on the outside looking in, but for that split second the photograph is taken, you can identify with the picture, and the tragedy of an article becomes potentially poignant. This is of course a negative example, one picture of the England World Cup winning rugby team would have shown their jubilation at their victory just by their celebrations captured in so many images, yet still thousands of articles appeared for days describing the mood and feeling of the team.

As we have seen the photograph is a split second of an actual event. We say that the photograph never lies, but one of individual reaction can easily be misinterpreted. Does the camera ever lie? If we look once again at a scene from a sporting event. The Rugby world cup final is an excellent example for it holds so much emotion, on the one hand we see England ecstatic in victory, pictures of laughter and tears (for we can easily associate tears as a far boundary of happiness).

But what if for a split second the camera captures, a member of the losing team with a broad smile across his face, or his hands in the air and a grimace that sends out a message suggesting he couldn’t care less. This is where the camera can lie, these people have been caught in a split second, and their reactions not being a true representation of the situation they are in. It would of course be extremely harsh for a newspaper editor to accompany this photograph with a headline criticising a player’s attitude, based on a picture that was purely chance.

Assuming therefore that the camera can lie, and in doing so, often gives off a different message than may often be meant at the time. Photography then becomes a critical tool in the newspaper world. “‘Sensational’ journalism breaks the press, ascribed guidelines of ethical practice with the intention of attracting attention in order to sell more papers. ” (Liz Wells (ed. ), 2003, p294) Nowhere can this be more evident than in the political world. In the United Kingdom especially, politics is of a national interest and many newspapers ally themselves with political parties.

The Telegraph and Daily Mail have often been described as Tory papers, turning towards the right wing of the political spectrum. Therefore in representing the current British Government in a bad light is to their advantage. A picture of Tony Blair, this could be a mere split second shot, looking tired or weak plays into the hands of the newspaper. They are trying to sell their paper, and in knowing that their target audience is similarly politically biased, then this ‘sensationalist’ journalism will sell papers.

It has seen no manipulation of the actual picture and so they haven’t broken any press standards, they have merely optimised an unfortunate image. An image that has an entire story behind, even though it would be wrong. “The photographer becomes a major figure, the public’s eye witness”, this is view of Karin E. Becker, and one that is interesting to study. (Liz Wells (Ed. ), 2003, p303) For if the photographer is the author of the picture then arguably he chooses its content. For example, a picture is a snap shot, a split second of a particular scene.

But the boundary of the photograph is just the edge of the picture; the story continues. All you see is what the photographer has chosen to include. This is where photographs can lie, they are misrepresenting a scene. For example a man fighting with a policeman is frowned upon. Policemen are there to uphold the law and generally regarded as societies protectors. But what if the man is attempting to help his girlfriend, innocently caught up in a riot and now being manhandled by the police. The picture suddenly takes on a different meaning.

Our first instinct is to disassociate oneself from the man fighting police, only if a caption explaining the mans anxiety would you sympathise with him. This is in fact a real picture from a photograph taken during one of the Poll Tax riots in the late 1980’s. “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks”. (Susan Sontag, 1997, p23) If we are to believe the camera never lies then we must agree with Susan Sontag, are perception of pictures must be more far reaching than the photographs border.

We must be analytical in are studying of single photographs, it is too easy to simply accept what is in front of you, yet in many cases this is what newspaper editors in the contemporary world media would want. But how important are photographs? Roland Barthes in his collection of writings in Camera Lucida tells of photography being his main source for which he can understand new societies and cultures, gather news and understand the past, present and future.

It [photography] allows me to accede to an infra-knowledge; it supplies me with a collision of partial objects and flatter a certain fetishism of mine: for this ‘me’ which likes knowledge, which nourishes a kind of amorous preference for it. ” (Roland Barthes, 2000, p30) If photography is as important as Barthes suggests then the audience needs to be well informed. Misrepresentation of pictures will be the leading reasons that the camera without any digital aid has the ability to lie.

Many people argue that in the onset of a multimedia age, the wide spread use of television globally, that photographs have seen their prime. It is not that they are not important, newspapers still have massive readerships, but because now the ‘media’ is such a wide title, they have less importance as the past. For now a photograph that has the ability to bend the truth in a newspaper can be contradicted by the television news, which in showing a moving image that is often a broader spectrum of the event clarifies to the audience the true meaning of the photograph.

Photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television is a stream of unselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. ” (Susan Sontag, 1979, p17) It is still photographs that live long in the memory, the images of the World Trade Centre, burning on a clear autumnal day in September, or the faces of victims of the towers fleeing from the thick dust engulfing Lower Manhattan following the collapse of the towers.

These images live long on and prove that still today photography is a powerful medium. As I have discussed in this essay, I strongly disagree with the notion that the camera never lies. In a digital age it is to easy now for newspapers to influence pictures for their own good: “here we see the ‘original’ image repeatedly manipulated and altered with irrelevant disregard for the standards that guide the elite press”, Karin E. Becker’s view being that the tabloids notoriety for manipulating images is a consistent violation (Liz Wells, 2003, p304).

But it is not just the onslaught of digital cameras, and powerful imaging software that has allowed for photographs to lie, the photographer himself, as the author of the picture allows himself an unprecedented privilege of choosing his content and potentially modifying the truth. But as we move into an age of the Internet, pictures once more come back again as a new form of media, allowing even more potential for misleading images.

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