Do pictures never lie?

The easiest thing in the world to alter is a photograph.

It was easy long before Photoshop and other image-manipulation softwares. It was even easy before computers.

It all depends on how the photographer frames the shot. You can make five people on a single row look like a larger attendance by just shooting directly from behind those five people. It’s a human thing to “continue” a photo from what’s seen to what’s implied beyond it. The average viewer will see those five people, shoulder to shoulder, and assume there are more people on either side. It’s just how we humans are wired.

You can make a large crowd look like a small crowd, depending on where you stand (or kneel or climb) to take the photo. You can do things like this without ever actually “posing” the picture, which a real photojournalist would never do. You don’t ask people to move or reposition themselves in a photo that’s supposed to be an “in action” or in media res shot. (If it’s a staged shot, all bets are off.)

The photographer’s framing decisions are paramount. Suppose there’s a pretty good attendance at a meeting, and the speaker is being well received, but there’s this one guy who is frowning. Choose to frame the photo with that guy in a strong position, and it implies that the speaker was, in fact, NOT well received. Or you can do the opposite, obviously: Focus on the small cheering section while the rest of the group boos.

Or consider protest scenes. If the photographer chooses to focus on a few people who are destroying things or fighting back against the police, it implies that the whole situation was like that. Even though the truth may be that those were a half-dozen bad actors among a peaceful crowd of hundreds of protestors.

Or even a more personal, small thing: Selfies. Chances are that the person we see in a selfie may look quite different in person. Sometimes that’s because of theatrical makeup, of course. (Who doesn’t know how to change your appearance by using highlights and shadows and distractions?) But even a simple thing like how you angle your head and choose your lighting can visually erase double chins, enlarge eyes, soften features… (There’s a reason so many selfies have heads at those few particular angles. 😀 I do it myself.)

Maybe everybody already knows this. But it bothers me more than ever these days. The old truism used to be “A photo never lies.” That’s no longer true, if it ever was. A lot of us still tend to think, on some unconscious level, “It has to be true, there’s the evidence right in front of your eyes.”

This is on my mind because I was scrolling through an old friend’s FB feed and came across a photo of 45’s inauguration crowd that looked completely, utterly, different from the ones I’ve seen before. It was posted as “evidence,” obviously, that the mainstream media was lying about the crowd size.

That photo looked completely real. Even looking closely, I couldn’t tell whether it had been altered. (Sometimes you can tell.) It buffaloed me so bad that I had to go search for inauguration photos from a dozen or so sources, and even then it was difficult to determine. Heck, maybe the ones I’d been seeing, from mostly mainstream or liberal sources, weren’t accurate either.

What’s the point here? Basically, that you can only trust photos if you trust the source providing the photos to be presenting an accurate image. And that photos can lie, smoothly and believably. And that if the particular thing we’re outraged about at the moment relies heavily on a image, it’s worth taking a long, hard look at that image.

Never base an outrage on the “evidence” of a single photo.

Never, ever assume that a photo is telling or indicating the whole truth. The choice of framing and selecting which photos to use can change people’s perceptions of reality.

Which is exactly the position we find ourselves in right now, living in two entirely different versions of the United States.

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1 Comment

Filed under media consumption, personal, photography

One response to “Do pictures never lie?

  1. Toni Chestnut

    I remember, as a child, my father telling me, “Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.” That has always stuck with me. Now, I’ve found myself believing none of it. There is no one left to trust in news media, politics, or elsewhere. I’m done.

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