Are constructed images a “lie”?
The following still is taken from an episode of One Foot in the Grave entitled “The Futility of the Fly” (Series 6, Episode 3).
“The Futility of the Fly” – One Foot in the Grave: Series 6, Episode 3
In this episode, the main characters Victor and his wife Margaret receive a mystery parcel. The mystery deepens when, upon opening the parcel, Victor finds the contents to be a giant plastic fly. In an attempt to find out why they have received the parcel, Margaret searches for a letter in the box. When she finds nothing, Victor looks more closely at the contents:
“Oh, hang on. There’s something written underneath here”
“What does it say?”
“It says ”Best before January 2001””.
This is relevant because would we, the audience, find this situation humorous if we had never experienced the over-zealous, perhaps officious manner in which nutrition and allergen labels are sometimes used on food packaging?
“May Contain Nuts” – Where else would you expect to find nuts, if not in a jar of peanut butter?
We find comedy situations humorous because they have a foundation in reality, we can relate to them.
This basis in reality is the “uncanny”, the “unheimlich”, the “nagging feeling of familiarity”, where fact is balanced with fiction.
There’s the thing you see, it’s about balancing.
Let’s revisit our original question “are constructed images a “lie”?
Perhaps a more pertinent question would be to ask: “was this image ever proclaimed as being a truthful representation?”
I think in answering this question we have to look to the context in which the images are viewed, and balance it with the intent of the photographer in taking the image.
For example, it is generally expected that documentary photographs will be taken with a significantly high level of integrity. It is also generally expected that they will be used in the same manner.
The following image demonstrates how a seemingly innocuous series of elements can be brought together to produce a final, constructed image.
“Vaccines: Weapons of Mass Destruction” (Author unknown)
We are, of course, all familiar with the following image …
Jeff Mitchell (2015)
And it’s subsequent, controversial and out-of-context use …
UKIP EU Referendum Campaign Poster (2016)
And so, to revisit our re-phrased question: “was this image ever proclaimed to be a truthful representation?”
A photograph, as an entity, can never lie. It is the purpose to which that photograph is put that dictates whether or not a lie is told. Passing off an image as being a truthful representation of an event when the image has been staged, arguably, constitutes a lie. As does using an image which is a true depiction of events but placing it in a context different to the original.
To re-quote Hine: “While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph” (Hine 1909: 111).
What, then, of the fictionality of images?
American born Lewis Hine used photography as a means of social reform and his work was instrumental in modernising America’s child labour laws. Having placed Hine’s work into context, then, why would he seek to “construct” an image? If his goal was to highlight the poor working conditions of young children working in factories, would it not have been the case that he would attempt to photograph the worst possible conditions to which employees were subjected in order for factory owners to make a profit? If social reform was needed, wouldn’t those poor conditions have existed anyway?
Lewis Hine, 1908. Girl Worker in a Carolina Cotton Mill
This seems at odds with the image “Girl Worker in a Carolina Cotton Mill” in which the conditions seem quite fair, especially for the time. The only injustice in this image seems to be that a young child is operating machinery in a factory. The environment seems to be quite clean, with large windows providing a light and “airy” working space – a far cry from the “dark Satanic mills” of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, many of which were still in operation in 1908.
In terms of my personal practice, I draw upon several areas as frames of reference.
Contemporary context is provided by the analysis of images produced by photographers who practice today.
I find the work of the great masters very inspirational and draw much historical contextualisation from their work.
The following image, “Autumn Harvest”, shows strong use of chiaroscuro to achieve a sense of moodiness. Shot in colour, this image is heavily edited in order to portray a sense of the timelessness of the harvest: the subjects themselves bring a sense of the familiar, the post-processing adds a feeling of nostalgia.
“Autumn Harvest” (Morris, 2016)
Are the subjects any less real because of the post-processing?
Critical analysis is something I haven’t always found easy. That applies equally to my own work and the work of others. Identifying exactly what elements of an image I find appealing, and those which I don’t, and then articulating those thoughts isn’t a natural process for me.
Criticism can take two forms: constructive and destructive.
I think we find it very easy to “pull apart” someone else’s work, be critical about it but in a negative way (even if we rarely vocalise our internal dialogue). Being critical and constructive is an art form in itself.
So, learning to tease out the positive and negative aspects of a photograph and present them in a way that is helpful, informative and insightful is something I have had to learn … it’s a work in progress.
I also find inspiration in quotes, especially those that make me question my photography and the manner in which I practice it.
The opening line to a 40-second-long Vision Express advertisement, presented by Sir Trevor McDonald, informs us:
“We are defined by what we have seen.”
This is a very thought provoking statement for me.
I like the following quote by David Bailey a lot, for me, it has an enormous amount of meaning:
“Photography – like painting, is all about looking. You have to keep looking until you see.”