Regimes of Truth
In his book Believing is Seeing, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris investigates two photographs by Roger Fenton from the 1855 Crimean War, one of the earliest examples of war photography. The two black and white photos, collectively titled The Valley of the Shadow of Death, show an empty landscape with a dirt road cutting through it. Both photos are taken from the same spot but in the first one, the road is empty while in the second, it is littered with cannonballs. In her book On Photography, literary icon Susan Sontag accuses Fenton of having “obviously” faked the photographs by deliberately placing the cannonballs on the road to make for a more dramatic photo. Morris, for whom nothing is so obvious that it needs to be said so, investigates.
The conclusion is that yes, Fenton faked the second photo. But while investigating, Morris reports an encounter with a photography expert whose take I find much more interesting. This expert believes that the second photo, despite having been faked, is much more “authentic”. To him, it doesn’t matter that the cannonballs were deliberately moved onto the road. Cannonballs were flying and people were getting killed and the photograph accurately reflects the milieu of the war and expresses the threat of danger. This understanding points to a more abstract notion of truth, let’s call it ‘affective’ truth. In this age of science and facts, that which cannot be corroborated by hard evidence is false, or a lie. As we now stand, ‘Truth’ needs proof.
When it was invented, the photograph was held to document truth, a passing moment in time that could be captured objectively and reproduced again to display something that had actually happened. We’ve since learned better. The moment that photography captures maybe staged, faked, concealed or cropped out. Now, with Photoshop and technology, it is much easier to alter photographs and much harder to detect the alterations. This became the subject of controversy over the winner of this year’s World Press Photo Award. After many accusations of the photographer having substantially altered the photo of a group of men carrying the bodies of two young children killed in an attack on Gaza city, an expert committee declared that the photo wasn’t a “fake.” While a photo’s authenticity is definitely a concern for purists and photographers, this photo, regardless of alterations, conveys an affective truth—that of the trauma and cost of war—that speaks beyond its frames.
Given their ability to impact, photographs have long been used politically for a variety of purposes. Glossy fashion magazines do it every day. The airbrushing, the lightening, the tucking in, all push an ideal of beauty that is fair, thin and unblemished. There is also the other end of the spectrum, where photos are used to horrify. Like the famous 1993 Kevin Carter photo of the emaciated Sudanese child and a predatory vulture waiting for him to die. Conflicting accounts that the boy’s family was just out of frame, collecting food from the UN and the vulture had been attracted by a nearby manure pit. Nevertheless, the photograph shocked the world and possibly even led to Carter’s suicide.
But of course, it would be foolish to compare fashion and journalism. Fashion defines itself and sets its own standards while journalism is held to loftier standards—that of truth and objectivity. But as gonzo journalism pioneer Hunter S Thompson has said once too often, “There is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” Thompson isn’t even alluding to the corporate, political and vested interests that drive many journalists. He means the simple fact that it is a human doing the reporting and hence, everything that this human sees and hears is subjective.
For photojournalists, the subjective comes in the choice of content, the framing of the photo, the tweaks and alterations of post-processing and finally, the choice of a select few photos from among the many. For written-word journalists, content is filtered through the subjective command of language, words chosen, structure, narrative and angle. In today’s modern newspaper world, there are even more subjectivities at play as desk editors, copy editors and proofreaders go through the piece before it is published. How then is journalism ever objective? And if it cannot be objective, is it ever the truth?
This raises some heady questions of what truth even is. Philosopher Michel Foucault describes a “regime of truth” where there are discourses that serve as the ‘truth’ for particular epochs and particular spaces. For Foucault, truth is something that happens; it is created. Unlike our standard supposition that truth exists independent of us and is waiting to be ‘discovered’ or ‘uncovered’, Foucault’s truth is an active creation of the relations of power.
Given its relativity, truth is always in a state of flux and is always being challenged. Just a few hundred years ago, the world was thought to be flat and that the sun revolved around us. Now that truth has been replaced by another one—the earth is spherical and that we revolve around the sun. We know this to be ‘true’ as far as the limits of our understanding of physics and astronomy go. This is what science, that ultimate iteration of Enlightenment rationality, tells us. But science too has its limits. When it comes down to the quantum level, even science treads into the realms of the uncertain. When an elementary particle of matter such as the quark has never been directly observed and behaves differently depending on the act of observation, science too becomes subjective.
However, this is not to say that there is no truth, just that the kind of objectivity found in football scores and mathematics is hard to come by. There is a world of difference between recognising something as subjective and something as a lie. In journalism, outright lying cannot pass for subjectivity. Order, rationality and truth are different ways in which we try to comprehend an increasingly chaotic, arbitrary world. But this understanding must be recognised as subjective and personal, especially when it comes to journalism and the business of truth-telling. Who is saying it, where it is being said and how it is being said are often more important than what is being said. Like Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message.
Understanding must be shaped by different points of view and varying schools of thought that are often at odds with each other. To exist in a constant state of flux, being buffeted from one point of view to the next, must be welcomed, for that is the only way we can make sense of things as they exist for others and not just ourselves.
(published in The Kathmandu Post, July 21, 2013)