Photographic truth and documentary photography

Does a photograph represent “truth?” What makes it truthful? When is it untruthful? If it does convey truth, whose truth is it?  These questions have been with photography since its origins.  They have become more pressing with the advent of digital photography and the ease with which a digital image can be manipulated.  They are especially important for those of use who think of ourselves as working in the journalistic and documentary traditions of photography.

I recently re-read Jerry L. Thompson’s book of essays, Truth and Photography:  Notes on Looking and Photographing.  The following reflections are drawn in part from his opening essay by that title.

Early in its history photography was often seen as an objective representation of reality. It was a “true,” scientific, representation of the world.  So for early photographers, truth meant verisimilitude: that is, truth meant that that the picture looked exactly like what would be seen from the camera’s view (with one eye closed since the ordinary camera doesn’t have stereo vision).

Before long, however, self-reflective viewers and photographers began to realize that even the literal image had a subjective element. In addition to the abstraction generated by seeing the world in black-and-white, what photographers chose to photograph, and what they chose to include in the photograph – how it was framed – was highly subjective. As Thompson says, it was a view from a particular point of view.

So although early documentary photographers claimed to objectively represent the world’s realities, they soon became more self-aware, acknowledging that documentary photography had an interpretive and even artful dimension to it.

By the end of the 19th century and through much of the 20th, artistic expression became for many photographers the motivation for photography, and this affected even the documentary tradition.  The photographer’s goal was to express the her or his response to the world, to “express your creative vision” as so many camera ads have proclaimed.   The photographer’s goal in this view is not to directly copy something but to convey the subjective experience of the subject or the photographer’s mastery of it.  Sometimes, in fact, the subject itself is unimportant but is used  to convey a personal vision that might have nothing directly to do with the actual subject.  What is being documented is the photographer’s experience or impression of the subject.

Thompson analyzes Walker Evans’ photographs from the 1930s.  Although apparently they are straight, “documentary” photographs of buildings and people, they are in fact highly personal.  In fact, Walker saw them as projections of himself.  For Alfred Steiglitz during the same era, truth was his own emotional state and the true artist mastered the medium to shape the image in a way that conveyed his or her own truth.  In these views, then, truth means “fidelity to the subjective experience of the artist.”

So photography, Thompson notes, moves between descriptive  and expressive approaches.  Yet even the descriptive photograph is highly subjective and could depart substantially from “objective” reality.

The lines between these two poles are blurred in the work of Pedro Meyer, Truth & Fictions:  a journey from documentary to digital photography. In her introduction to the book, Joan Fontcuberta argues that only a myotic view of documentary work would exclude Meyer’s approach.  She gives an example of such a dictionary definition:  “Documentary photographs are thought of as those in which the events in front of the lens (or in the print) have been altered as little as possible from what they would have been, had the photographer not been there….” Sometimes Meyer, a Mexican photographer, does not make any alterations in the photos he presents: “…they ae perfect instances of found paradoxical situations….” But often Meyer invisibly manipulates and adds to photographs, creating a fantasy world in which it is difficult to distinguish what was actually there.  They are presented as a kind of document, but one that calls attention to the blurred lines between fact and fiction.  What is “real” and what is not?  Fontcuberta calls on artists to “seed doubt, destroy certainties, annihilate convictions….”

Thompson points out for many photographers – whether their intent isdescriptive or expressive – truth depends on the vision and mastery of the photographer.  Thompson is encouraged by the alternate possibilities suggested by a famous Walker Evans portrait in which the subject asserts her own “…overwhelming presence, a ravishing mystery that…delivers a gift, a gift of sight.” “The kind of large, open truth I am trying to attach to photography reaches back toward this initial, primordial sense of wonder, of awe.”  So photography as mastery is not the only way to conceive photography. As I have argued before, a photograph depends upon a kind of collaboration between photographer and subject.  Sometimes the subject takes, or is given, power in the relationship.

Mastery of the photographic medium has led present-day photography to its “truth,” Thompson acknowledges, but another broader truth endures and asserts itself from time to time in what he calls “genuine encounters.”  In my words, when the subject is genuinely respected and allowed to be co-creator with the photographer.  “If, at the start of the twentieth-first century, photography still has any unspent capital left, it may be that its greatest reserves will be found in this direction….”


2 comments on “Photographic truth and documentary photography”

  1. Ted Lewis says:

    It’s hard not to see the links with restorative justice work in the concluding remarks, given Howard’s references to collaboration, encounter, respect, etc. The relationship between practitioner and client, in my experience, similarly involves a clean, open-minded start on the part of the practitioner who comes to victims or offenders without heavy expectations on how to frame the ‘composition’ of the restorative process. There’s clearly a ‘truth’ that clients present to practitioners which calls for a creative response.

    Part of empowering parties, I’m seeing better now, is in fact a process of allowing parties to co-create each progressive step with us. Hence, the non-directive style that Mark Umbreit often refers to, not only applicable within facilitated meetings but also throughout case development. Forgive me, Howard, for naming all of these parallels (as if your two vocational interests must somehow justify each other). Nevertheless, the linkages are there, and it was helpful for me to find some new language around that.

    Ted Lewis

  2. I agree you very informative post you have here, and I love reading your post.. thank you very much for sharing..

    yes documentary photography had an interpretive and even artful dimension

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