Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Are We Really Seeing?

Parade of Sail 88, 2007

I was describing to someone last night how serious journalists and photojournalists work hard to observe basic elements of objectivity in their work. I don’t know if it’s still the case, and a lot of people probably never even knew about it; but it at least used to be policy in newsrooms that reporters covering political campaigns were not allowed to vote in elections or became involved in political campaigns lest their reporting reflect a partisan point of view. I likened this quest to the Scientific Method as interpreted by journalism.

It’s funny how when we doubt the veracity of someone’s coverage of an event we seek out photographs or moving pictures to give us the “true” reckoning of things. We presume that these images are more accurate reflections of truth because we can see what’s going on with our own eyes.

In the late summer of 1990, we were glued to CNN watching the U.S. and coalition forces invade Kuwait. For those of us who’d grown up watching film from the Vietnam War that might be several days old by the time we saw it, seeing the Gulf War live, “as it happens,” was like something out of a Tom Clancy novel.

In Operation Desert Storm, to paraphrase Edgar R. Murrow, “we were there.” We saw the fire and heard the whiz of Scud missiles streak across the pixelated nighttime sky. If our televisions’ sound systems were robust enough, we could even pretend to feel the concussion of their explosive landings. Thanks to its brevity, Operation Desert Storm was more like a mini-series staring “Stormin’ Norman” Schwartzkopf than a war.

Even though CNN reporters could only speculate on what we were seeing, and even though much of what they reported would subsequently be found to be untrue, we became hooked on the TV porn of live war coverage and have never looked back.

This experience proved that we’d rather have incomplete and inaccurate live photographic coverage of an event than have accurate written coverage a few hours later. This insight into our national psyche is why I guess I shouldn’t have gotten so upset when the size of the crowd at Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington D.C. was reported variously as 80,000 (by Beck himself), 500,000 (by Mrs. Palin, who was standing right beside him) and “a million strong” (by Michelle Bachman, who was also standing on the same stage). We see what we want to see.

There’s a long tradition of discussion among photographers about what constitutes accuracy and truth. Two photographers coming to the same event with absolutely no preconceived notions can take pictures that suggest to some viewers that they were at two different events. Even the lighting or the background or the lens selection of a simple portrait can make all the difference in whether we interpret the person being photographed as friendly, inquisitive, thoughtful or just plain evil.

There’s a wonderful program I think very highly of that you might find interesting. It’s called Truth with a Camera. It began at the University of Missouri Photo Workshop in 1949 and has evolved into one of the most respect photojournalism workshops in the nation. The founding director of the program had but one rule. “Show truth with a camera. No posing. No manipulation of the facts.”

Years ago I attended a lecture by a famous photojournalist. As he ran through slides and described many of the award-winning photographs for which he was famous, he described how he’d posed people, moved vehicles and made other changes in the scene to create emotionally impactful images. Most of the people in the audience sat in awe. I left feeling nothing but anger and disappointment at the way the photographer had lied about history and reached a point in life where he had no apparent shame about describing how he’d violated the most basic ethical guidelines of his trade.

We don’t all aspire to be photojournalists, nor is it necessary for us to adhere to Truth with a Camera’s guidelines. But it’s helpful in our own development to at least be honest about where we’re coming from when we take pictures, especially if our pictures are intended to serve as some kind of documentation or historic record of a family, a place or a time in our life.

The purpose of showing Parade of Sail 88, above, is to show that depending on what you know about the scene, the tug boats and their water spouts could either be welcoming the tall ship to port or putting out a fire. The name tells you that it's probably not a fire. But another name could have given a completely different impression.


  1. Very true. What an interesting post! I recognized this immediately, because I took some photos a number of years ago at Harborfest and I saw scenes like this...'course, MY photos were abysmal, but this one is awesome!

  2. ps
    Just LOOKING at those guys up there, I get vertigo. Yikes.

  3. this is an excellent observation on the responsibilities of journalism, and on seeing as well. And Understanding.
    "we became hooked on the TV porn of live war coverage" - what a perfect and stunning sentence.
    (Curiously, I was just talking with an old close friend, a well-known photographer, who took that workshop years ago, and was telling me about how he was taking a shot of people in a room, and noticed then the table in the foreground littered ashtrays, and so swept them away and re-took it, and was severely chastised by the instructor for doing so! )

    And then there is the whole difference between journalistic photography, and artistic photography...another topic for another day!