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.


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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