Staging or faking? Exploring the Myth of photographic truth

In fact, every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible” (Edward Steichen, Ye Fakers, 1903)

Despite the fact that Steichen openly admitted this way back in 1903, the perennial question that rears its head time and again in discussions of (particularly news and documentary) photography – is it a truthful image, a faithful representation of event as it actually happened, or was it all dreamed up and orchestrated by the photographer? At the end of the day, does it really matter that much? It seems to!

As early as 1990, photography critic Andy Grundberg made the following gloomy predictions:

In the future, it seems almost certain, photographs will appear less like facts and more like factoids – as a kind of unsettled and unsettling hybrid imagery based not so much on observable reality and actual events as on the imagination.” (Grundberg 1990, n.p.)

While “disciplines based on the veracity of photographic appearances, including photojournalism, will either change radically in appearance or wither” and “readers of newspapers and magazines will probably view news pictures more as illustrations than as reportage, since they will be well aware that they can no longer distinguish between a genuine image and one that has been manipulated” owing to the fact that even if photographers and editors resist the temptation to digitally manipulate photographs, “the credibility of all reproduced images will be diminished by a climate of reduced expectations.” He ascribes this not so much to the availability of technological possibilities for manipulation, nor to the ascendance of moving image, but as he sees it: “photography’s loss of its documentary authority has less to do with the arrival of video and computer images than it does with its own superabundance and stereotypicality.” He is referring to the fact that we are so bombarded with images in all aspects of life, while our expectations of those images have been moulded by the very same degree of exposure.

On the other hand, as David Levi Strauss points out, since news images are often juxtaposed with advertising and lifestyle images, the combined effect should be taken as a whole and not separated into photographs showing ‘objective’ fact and others showing fiction/opinion: “[Photographs] operate as objective quotes, and they combine with other news imagery, advertising images, and words, to produce a unified effect in the symbolic arena” (2005, p 16). They form part of a holistic experience, and cannot be separated.

It’s not that we mistake photographs for reality; we prefer them to reality. We cannot bear reality, but we bear images – like stigmata, like children, like fallen comrades. We suffer them. We idealize them. We believe them because we need what we are in them.” (Strauss 2005, p 185)

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