Truths revealed by the camera’s lies

Truths revealed by the camera’s lies

Opinion column originally published in Amateur Photographer 5 October 2019

Photojournalism succeeds because of its apparent veracity. That ‘the camera doesn’t lie’ is at the heart of the reportage captured through the lens. Of course we know that images can be ‘Photoshopped’. Our expectation, though, is that those using cameras as documentary tools resist manipulation beyond dodging, burning, and cropping.

A worrying drip, drip, drip of revelations about hitherto iconic images is steadily unsettling long-standing expectations, however.

Robert Capa’s shots of the D-Day landings on Omaha beach stand at photojournalism’s pinnacle. They made Life’s cover within days of the invasion and continue to shape our understanding of that battle. Stephen Speilburg’s 1998 D-Day epic, Saving Private Ryan, owes much to Capa’s imagery.

Today, however, new research casts doubt on the enfolding story of Capa’s ‘Magnificent Eleven’ – his iconic shots of the beach landings. 

AD Coleman’s detective work deserves to be read in full, you can find it here. His emblematic revelation is that Capa’s captured not the first bloody moments of engagement, but scenes hours after after the initial storming of the surf.  His pictures show engineers laying path-clearing explosives, not infantrymen under fire.

That is just one famous picture whose enfolding mythology has been unpicked. Steve McCurry’s 1984 portrait of an Afghan girl (years later identified as Sharbat Gubla) used by National Geographic as a cover is another. Its original caption ‘Haunted eyes tell of an Afghan refugees fears’ suggested that her unease was the result of displacement and her parents’ deaths as the USSR’s soldiers ravaged her country. More recent suggestions are that she was frightened to be in the presence of western man with a camera.

Better understanding how photographs came about – particularly those that have become so well known – is always a good thing, and photographers are honour-bound to be honest about their techniques. Fretting too much when it transpires that some shots are confected, however, has the capacity to miss the point.

Introduce a camera to any situation and contrivance is a play. Even if our subjects do not, or cannot, respond to our presence, the act of selecting where to point the lens represents a choice about which ‘truth’ is recorded. Children’s smiles, perfect floral blooms and uncluttered domestic scenes are more frequent photographic subjects than occurrences.

The question for anyone who serious-mindedly uses a camera is this. Does the moment captured represent a truth? Ability to make this judgement, rather than understanding exposure, or composition, that is the real skill of photography.

Some photographers recognise those moments instinctively, others apply profound thought to deciding which images have the capacity to accurately tell a tale. How much contrivance is acceptable is complex and, at times, contestable.

Adding a familiar object to a scene as a visual clue to the size of the main subject is an old trick, as is encouraging subjects to recreate an apparently unposed scene, Staking out a juxtaposition of subject and background is another version of managed truth. 

Of course visual chicanery has the capacity to deceive, but it can also bring important stories to wider attention. Distinguishing self-serving deceptions from those that illuminate greater truths is the mark of a photographer who has mastered their craft. That the very greatest photographers do this should be reason to admire their skills all the more, rather than to automatically dismiss their images for dishonesty.