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Calum Andrew Morrell

Constructing a lie

All photographs are lies. No, really.

Added on the 4th of November, 2023

It was Bucks Fizz that sang “My camera never lies anymore”, though I suspect most people would accept that it’s possible to present a photograph as an honest representation of the world where there’s at least some element of fabrication in it. I just want to go a little further and suggest that every photograph you’ve ever seen was, in some way, dishonest.

There’s an oft reported claim that photography is about representing the world as is. There is a lot of nuance and variation in the claim that I can’t reasonably represent in a moderately short article so I’ve tried to distil it to its most fundamental essence.

In general this claim tends to focus on areas such as portraiture, documentary or landscape photography where it would often seem reasonable, while ignoring ‘creative’ photography where the purpose is often to abstract away from reality.

What I want to suggest is that this claim is completely and utterly wrong.

I am far from the first person to suggest that the camera can lie. Just pop the phrase ‘the camera never lies’ into your favourite search engine and you should quickly find examples going back almost to the beginning of photography in the early 19th century. After writing the first draft of this article I did the same and noticed that those quotes I found appeared to be mostly suggesting the camera is capable of lying, but does not always do so. My counterclaim is that it always (or so close to always) lies that it would be practically improbable for someone to show me a photograph where I would be unable to suggest how the scene may not be a good representation of reality at the point it was captured.

Portraiture may be the easiest to dismiss as it seems unconvincing when the claim is applied to it in the first place. In portraiture the purpose is to represent the person. Okay, you could apply the claim to that, but it’s just not that simple. An agreement between the photographer and subject will decide the environment (studio, woodland, industrial), the clothing (relaxed, stylish, none), the lighting (natural, flash, candle), the pose, the facial expression, the focal length used, the amount of the subject included, whether props are used and so on.

Each of these factors moves the resulting image further away from a simple representation and towards the construction of a fabricated existence the subject has never lived. The final portrait is therefore a complete lie, relying on our imagination to associate it with the subject at all.

photograph of a girl sitting and writing in a cafe

I captured this in a busy city centre cafe. It took quite a while to be able to make it look deserted.

So what about documentary or landscape photography? With some exceptions, they both have a general goal of representing a scene the way it is. There have been instances of documentary photographers being discredited for digitally altering a scene away from reality. A notable example being where Adnan Hajj used Photoshop to add an additional smoke stack to one image and triplicated a flare dropped by an F-16 in another. These discoveries resulted in Reuters swiftly removing all 920 photographs Hajj had placed with them.

When photographing a landscape it is common to find an element you don’t want to include. A stray boulder cluttering an otherwise flat expanse, a modern house where you would prefer something a few centuries old or perhaps a row of pylons where you want to show a scene untouched by human hands. In these instances you would generally use your legs to find an angle that provides the scene you want whilst removing the distractions.

At an initial glance both of these examples may have you thinking that I’m obviously wrong in my assertion that photographs are about constructing a lie. After all, in one case I’ve shown that photographers may be criticised for altering reality while in the other I’ve shown photographers may go to great lengths to avoid including an element they don’t want.

In each case the photographer will select a focal length to include elements they want while excluding those they do not. They will choose where to stand, removing distraction from the image they choose to present as truth. They may select a shutter speed, controlling carefully how motion in the scene is portrayed. They may select an aperture, ensuring everything is in sharp focus from front to back or to cause most of the scene to become out of focus in order to draw the viewer’s eye to the elements the photographer feels are most important. They may choose to present the image in black & white, perhaps high contrast, perhaps with large grain in order to create a moody, dramatic impact. Alternatively they may have gone with heavily saturated colour and very fine grain, allowing all the detail in the image to stand clear. The documentary photographer may choose to use flash to enhance their image while the landscape photographer may wait patiently beside their camera until the light is doing what they want it to.

photo of a winter sunrise from the Storr on Skye

We climbed part of the way up the Storr on Skye in the dark on frozen ground then waited for a long time to capture this sunrise.

Each and every decision the photographer makes will have the potential to alter the reality depicted within the final photograph. A close crop on a number of police officers holding a protestor to the ground may accurately depict that specific incident without any attempt to deceive, but another protestor holding a placard with a catchy slogan just to the side is surely just as relevant to what’s happening, even if they’re not in the photograph. That row of pylons exists even if not photographed, leading to disappointment when a visitor to the area wants to see where one of their favourite photographs was taken. Waterfalls tend to be captured with a slow shutter speed to enhance the feel of the flow of water, but when the visitor views the waterfall with their eyes they can never come close to approaching this effect.

With every decision building upon its predecessors, I would suggest the difference between reality and photograph can, in some cases, become considerable. This is not to suggest that on viewing the photograph I would take issue with it or dismiss it as a fabrication. On the contrary, the best images display careful control of many factors.

To state this as clearly as I can, my objection is not with the photograph, but the claim that it represents the world as is.

Okay, so the above has all been relating predominantly to professional or enthusiastic amateur photographers who are actively seeking to produce high quality images. Let’s take a break and consider the average person with no particular interest in photography beyond perhaps using their phone to take holiday snaps, selfies with friends and family gatherings. Surely those quick snaps depict a true world. After all, it’s unlikely a checklist of carefully considered options is even approached in the few seconds it takes to capture a selfie at a party.

Even in these situations I have to disagree. You still choose where to point a camera. If you don’t like the result, you’re likely to have another go. On holiday you may want the Gothic cathedral, but not the modern office block beside it. At a party you may take fewer photographs, if any, of someone you don’t like, effectively removing them from recorded history. So although you may not have the training or knowledge to work through the choices I’ve previously suggested, you’re still doing very similar things instinctively. You are still deciding on the particular reality you wish to represent.

This may seem a rather whimsical argument for something that doesn’t really matter, but I counter that in order to accept an image as representative we must understand what decisions and compromises were instrumental to its construction. For future historical analysis this is essential. For reducing the barrier between ‘photography’ and ‘creative photography’, terms which are often used in a derogatory way, understanding that the number and nature of decisions required to capture a representative photograph may be no less than those which help build an abstract so extreme you would refuse to believe it was a photograph of a bunch of balloons. I believe this matters as there is a deeply unhealthy amount of ‘otherism’ in photography (and art, and sport, and culture, and …) and perhaps one small part in reducing this is to gain a greater understanding of ours vs theirs.

extremely abstract photo of some balloons

Without knowing this is a photograph of balloons, could you tell? Now you know, can you tell?

Posted in the Photography category commentary, documentary, landscape, lie, portrait, truth