A picture is worth a thousand words: what photojournalists don’t want you to know about their images

Two recent articles are worth a peek for what the reveal both about contemporary politics and about the nature of photography itself.

The pieces–one in the Washington Post, the other on Breitbart.com–describe misleading pictures published during the recent Gaza conflict. Most notably, photos of dead and maimed children were used by pro-Palestinian journalists in order to accuse the Israelis of being brutal assassins of the young. Whether you feel Israel’s actions were justified or not, Palestinian children were hurt and killed during battle (and so were Israeli children). However, further investigation revealed that one of the photos–said to portray a Palestinian child gravely wounded by Israelis–was in fact a child attacked by Syrian forces in the conflict in that country. And another child, supposedly killed by Israelis, was most likely killed by a Palestinian rocket that misfired. These are only two among many “photo-ops” that were intentionally mislabeled for political purposes.

ink bottle

If I spill some ink from this bottle, what will you see?

Of course, as the Washington Post article points out, the misrepresentation isn’t always by the pro-Palestinian side (although usually Israeli press just doesn’t publish images of Palestinians who are hurt or injured). And I don’t really want to get into the political aspects of this case. What I would like to do is point out how this issue goes far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

People assume that photos represent truth. Not just truth, but Truth–something objective and unassailable. But that’s simply not the case. Today’s technology allows flaws to be airbrushed out, faces to be swapped, and other forms of digital manipulation of images to occur. And any decent photographer can tell you that lighting, angles, and composition can greatly affect the meaning of a photo.

What’s particularly disturbing about the photos from the Gaza conflict is that they didn’t depend on professional talents, Photoshop savvy or any other hi-tech skills to trick people. All the journalists needed to do was attribute the photo to a different setting, say the people in the photo were of a particular ethnic group, or even simply crop certain details out, and the message the photo conveyed was greatly affected. Moreover, after someone intentionally published misleading photos on the Web, they had thousands of willing volunteers to pass the misinformation on–most of whom did not realize that they were being misled about the events leading up to the photos.

Any decontextualized photo could cause a similar problem. Even the naked eye can mislead. A small detail from another article, this time from this week’s New York Times Magazine, will illustrate my point. The feature story describes Ashlyn Blocker, who has a genetic abnormality that includes the inability to feel pain. Sufferers from this syndrome injure themselves frequently, particularly in childhood. Then they often don’t notice these injuries, which may become infected or otherwise aggravated. As a result, they show up at emergency rooms with great frequency, covered in old scars as well as seeking treatment for the new injury. Hospital personnel who see these patients for the first time often assume that these children are victims of horrific abuse. They–based on the “evidence” of their eyes–may even contact the department of social services or the police.

Any viewer makes assumptions about preceding events and carries baggage in the form of prejudices and personality quirks. The entire world is really just a giant inkblot on a Rorschach test. The lesson from the Gaza debacle, for me, isn’t simply that you can’t trust a picture to tell you the truth. It’s that you can’t trust anyone to tell you the truth. There are lies we tell on purpose, and lies we tell completely unaware that they are lies. No matter how objective people try to be, subjective opinion leaks through.

Does that mean I don’t believe in objective truth? I’m an Orthodox Jew, and I believe that the Torah is true. But do I expect the average human being to be able to convey the truth? Not so much. Since people are by nature unreliable, I view anything I see, read, or hear with a critical filter.

It may sound cynical, but it’s self-defense.

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