IC - Week 3 - Constucted realities - 1

If the photograph is a lie or not, in my opinion, depends clearly on the author's intention and it doesn't have anything to do with the photographed subject, methods and techniques. The author knows what it is in front of the lens and he only can verify if it is a truthful record, intentionally constructed reality or the manipulation.

Similarly to the written or spoken word or any other means of communication, a photograph can be an easy tool for a manipulative practices. By simply taking advantage of the intrinsic to photographic apparatuses characteristics like vantage point, dept of field, frame, or by manipulating the image in various post-production methods photographer can construct the scene which is a pure manipulation.

The image can also be as honest as possible in the first place, but when designed to consumed in the unrelated and intentionally misleading context - it can be a very effective evidence of a lie.

It is up to us - spectators - to make an effort of finding out what was the author intention if we want to understand it.

Photographically constructed reality is an creative communicate as any other - painting, drawing, novel etc. It is though much more complex and difficult to interpret due to the layer of obvious connection to the real word (due to indexical nature of photography), hence the context and author's statement are very important. 

"The photograph has an added realism of its own; it has an inherent attraction not found in other forms of illustration. For this reason the average person believes implicitly that the photograph cannot falsify. Of course, you and I know that this unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph is often rudely shaken, for, while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph." (Lewis Hine in Goldstein, p.62-63)

The manipulation of the events in the photojournalism which became so common with the rise of digital photography is a pure example of a lying, but it is not the photograph nor a camera to blame but the unscrupulous photographer.

If Crewdson stated that his meticulously constructed scenes are real that would be a lie. Would anyone believe it? Thats a different question…

Sugimoto’s photographs of American Museum of Natural History visualisations (Diorama series) are an interesting case. He did not constructed the scene he photographed, it was constructed though to represent some speculative reality by the museum designers. In the ontological sense, the record is an authentication of that scene existing in real but the scene itself is a visualisation and Sugimoto knows about it. So he intentionally records a fiction but he is clear with the audience about that. It would be hard to believe in the authenticity of the existence of some subjects but most of the photographs create the strong illusion of reality. 

 "I had found a way to see the world as a camera does. However fake the subject, once photographed, it's as good as real."(Hiroshi Sugimoto)
Diorama , Hiroshi Sugimoto 

Diorama, Hiroshi Sugimoto 

Following the Lewis Hine quote from this week's course presentation, I've found online a very interesting essay "All Photos Lie, Images as data" written by Barry Goldstein which is part of the book (chapter 3) "Visual Research Methods: Image, Society, and Representation" edited by Gregory Stanczak.

For Goldstein it is clear that "every photograph lies" although he relates his statement to the ontological nature of photographed reality. He suggest to "treat photographic images in the same way a scientist treats data." (p.64) and explain that "No experimentalist assumes that data are perfect. Indeed, all data are assumed to have a variety of types of error (i.e., deviation from “truth”). The question then becomes not “do these data represent reality,” but rather “are the deviations from reality I know to be present relevant to the question I’m asking?” (p.64)

Some interesting quotes reflecting the opinions about the objectivity of the photograph Goldstein includes in his essay:

"We know that sensory phenomena are transcribed, in the photographic emulsion, in such a way that even if there is a causal link with the real phenomena, the graphic images can be considered as wholly arbitrary with respect to these phenomena". (Umberto Eco in Goldstein p.63)
Our task is to perceive reality, almost simultaneously recording it in the sketchbook which is our camera. We must neither try to manipulate reality while we are shooting, nor must we manipulate the results in the darkroom. These tricks are patently discernable to those who have eyes to see. (Henri Cartier-Bresson in Goldstein p.62)
“I don’t care what you do with that negative, you can retouch it, you can spit on it, you can grind it underfoot. The only thing that matters is if it is honest. If [the picture] is honest, you and everybody can tell. If it is dishonest, you and everybody can tell” . . . that explains what good photography and any good art is all about." (Arnold Newman in Goldstein p.63)


  • Goldstein, Barry M. (2007) "All Photos Lie, Images as data" - chapter 3 in "Visual Research Methods: Image, Society, and Representation" Stanczak, Gregory C., Sage Press
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto, Website 
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto, Diorama, Website