Does truth no longer matter in the reception of the photographic image?
Of recent interest has been the concept of “post-truth” as it relates to photography, and how it is possible to navigate an age when rational and empirical investigations of truth can no longer serve us. As many of the concerns about the emergence of a post-truth era seem to have emerged directly out of concerns raised about photography in the digital age - including a perceived growing distance from accessible truth amplified by the ease of manipulation offered by digital technology and the shrinking importance of traditional gatekeepers on digital platforms - photography has done a fair amount of soul-searching to determine what its role in relating truth is and should be in the 21st century. (Read more about this in the Archival Reflection).
Adjustments, enhancements, and embellishments to the photographic image have been inherent in the medium from its birth (see: Pictorialist), and of course outright photo manipulation has been a common theme throughout its history (as seen in the airbrushing of soviet portraits, for example), but artificial intelligence, augmented reality, extended reality, "mixed reality,” neural networks and Snapchat filters which manipulate images even as they are being taken, and even deep fakes have now entered the fray, leaving viewers struggling to keep up with the latest technological advances and suspended between belief and an unwillingness to trust.
Perhaps this new form of synthetic images and “computational photography” has heralded us into a new age for the relationship of photography to truth, one in which the camera promises no allegiance to realism, beauty, or truth, but rather hold another purpose - one more closely aligned with entertainment, idealization, and persuasion. Photography influences both behaviors online and off (as people plan vacations around Instagrammable spots, or life moments around ideal social media captures), and offers a tool for the creation of simple, satisfying narratives in the form of visual sound-bites and, perhaps, a revelation of not of an objective world, but of the intentions, beliefs, ideals, and desires which shape it.
In Time Lightbox's 2017 article, "The Purpose of Photography in a Post-Truth Era", published in response to the controversy surrounding Trump’s inauguration photos and the decreasing ability of a photograph to convince viewers of its truth, writer Santiago Lyon laments, “Once upon a time we were told that “a photograph never lies” and that we should trust in the still image. Nowadays, drenched in information, much of it visual, we struggle to make sense of the personal and professional views on our world.”
In a post-truth era, personal opinion reigns supreme above facts and documentation – a trend that has persisted throughout Carroll studies as viewers of his photography set out to protect or defend, condemn or justify the life and works of a famous children’s author. But more than just imposing one’s own sensibilities on an image, concerns of "post-truth" in the digital age reflect concerns about the networks and institutions by which information is distributed and through which opinions are formed. Intensifying a general mistrust of digital images and exacerbated by the overwhelming information available online, filter bubbles and echo chambers of information created by algorithms restrict access to information and the possibility of interacting with opposing viewpoints, while social media distribution networks seem to indulge a human tendency toward sensationalism, as stories on the internet often spread faster and wider than facts.
An interesting study of post-truth information in relation to Carroll’s portfolio might therefore be the distribution of several images of Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll online. An image titled “Carroll-and-Alice-kissing,” showing a photoshopped image of Carroll and Alice embracing originated on Pinterest, but then picked up by numerous blogs at face value, and even by reputable newspapers and magazines. Even as these images have been called out as frauds, these images continue to circulate. As much of the internet exists in a self-curation of the unrelenting amount of information that is available, these images continue to feed confirmation bias and false narratives no matter how many times they are disproven.
On left: Carroll's original images. On right: A photoshopped image which has gained traction on the internet.
(Images courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London)
Carroll's original images. On right: A photoshopped image which has gained traction on the internet.
(Images courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London)
As Errol Morris writes in a New York Times article “Photography as a Weapon,” the danger of fake images goes beyond the misleading nature of their statements. As he writes, the brain also much more likely to remember the photograph independently of the label “fake,” meaning that viewers of the photograph – even after the photograph has been debunked – often only remember the image and the misinformation. Studies have shown that people are more likely to remember and validate fake images that confirm what they already believe, and that the human brain is much more adept at remembering images than it is at distinguishing between memories of photographs and memories of firsthand experience, meaning that photographs – even doctored photographs – often are stored in the mind as real events. Studies suggest that photography can help create fake memories – typical fake memories is about 30%, but when given in conjunction with a photograph the number increases significantly and can even be used to implant fake childhood memories The spread of fake images for political purposes is therefore a wildly successful tactic in stirring public opinion or fear, as viewers are still likely to be emotionally misled by the fakery even after it has been debunked.
So where does the future of photography lie in post-truth world? Although the technologies and challenges facing interpretation will change, As Fred Ritchin reminds us in After Photography, it is ultimately we who choose in which direction the future of photography goes and whether we are walking toward a utopian or dystopian future. Rather than technology defining our relationship to the world, we have the power to define our relationship to technology. Ritchin observes that digital photography has the potential to lead – not only toward a heightened state of unreality – but to a condition that takes advantage of the power of digital technology and leads to a heightened perceptual capability and hyper-textual surpassing of the standard description we associate with photography. Just as Alice is defined by her agency, arguing with the characters of Wonderland before ultimately rejecting the entire trial which she has been forced to sit through and returning to a more tenable reality, perhaps viewers of photography in the digital age can also emerge as responsible co-authors of meaning.
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"The Purpose of Photography in a Post-Truth Era,” Time Lightbox
"Word of the Year 2016 is...", Oxford English Dictionary Online