Objective truth in photographs

There’s a pho­to that’s been doing the rounds on social media. It shows a crowd of peo­ple at an event, all of them using their mobile phones, pre­sum­ably as cam­eras to cap­ture the event. The excep­tion is an old lady at the front, who has no phone in her hands and is look­ing at the event direct­ly.

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Peo­ple have been say­ing things like “A tru­ly won­der­ful pho­to­graph. We have for­got­ten how to live in the present”. But this is sim­ply some­one inter­pret­ing the pho­to­graph in a way that suits their bias­es. It’s a cheap trick. The lady in the cir­cle hasn’t (as far as I know) pub­licly stat­ed what she was doing, so absent that infor­ma­tion I can offer a few alter­na­tive cap­tions that are just as true:

Lady doesn’t own a camera phone, wishes she does.

Lady forgot to charge her camera phone battery before she left the house.

Lady is not engaged with what’s happening, is waiting for something more interesting.

Lady has no idea where she is or what’s going on.

The doc­u­men­tarist Errol Mor­ris has writ­ten and filmed exten­sive­ly about truth in images, notably in his book Believ­ing Is See­ing, and his film Stan­dard Oper­at­ing Pro­ce­dure, about the noto­ri­ous Abu Ghraib prison pho­tos. He makes this point about how we inter­pret pho­tographs:

Images in part derive their pow­er from the fact that we are exclud­ing so much of the world.

This pic­ture cap­tures a sin­gle moment in time: you can’t see what hap­pened before, or after. It’s also a sin­gle point in space; you can’t see what’s out of frame. If there is an objec­tive truth, it’s very unlike­ly to be present in a pho­to­graph offered with­out con­text.

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