How is it that a seemingly general acceptance that 'the camera never lies' has managed to survive, despite the reality that it is very difficult to think of any photographic image which does not contain a lie of some kind? It could be as overt as the decision of a photographer to exclude something which would cast the contents of the photograph into a different light; or post-production improvements, manipulations, enhancements and crops, which allow the creation of an image to which the camera can only contribute a part. Or it could simply be that by pointing the camera in one direction instead of another, it is never possible to see the whole 'truth' in a photographic image, but rather a single angle, a single moment, devoid of temporal context. "Photography evades us", as Barthes put it. Ernst Van Alphen describes how in an archive, the identity we presume we see in a particular photograph is not the result of the 'real' identity of whatever has been captured in the image, but of whatever system of classification has been imposed upon it. Mieke Bal, in a lecture on narrative, reiterated the ideas of Henri Bergson: "the co-existence of different moments or memories binds viewers to what they see, so there's not ever a single moment in the present. The story may be fictional, but the interaction with it is real".
It is interesting to think of these statements concerning 'truth' in imagery, and the way that previous experience and knowledge contributes to perception, in application to the recent outrage over the Plymouth University students in the image below. I saw this image first as a shared Facebook post, where it had already inspired hundreds of comments from two main viewpoints: one deploring the young people's "Nazi" behaviour, and the other arguing why that view was invalid, based on such reasoning as that the young man "making the White Power hand signal" had had his other hand cropped out of the image, but that if the uncropped version was consulted it would become clear that he was making the same gesture with the other hand, which then apparently doesn't signify far-right affiliation. For all I know, making the signal with both hands might make the effect even worse to those affected by its connotations, but in the context of my particular focus on the truth of images, it doesn't matter. What I looked for in the responses to this image, and what I didn't find, was anything which questioned whether the image itself could be trusted. I accept that the likelihood is that these young people really did write things on their own and/or each other's T-shirts. But the image itself is not proof of this. And how interesting that it should appear at a time when immigration, Brexit, nationalism, left v right, Corbin as antisemitist etc, are such critical topics. We can't know, just from this image, whether the scene we see is a record of one product of that climate, or manufactured to create a guaranteed polarising reaction in order to further a specific agenda. Is it effect or cause? The image itself has no way of telling us the answer, which is precisely why it must be questioned, and why photographic imagery is suitable for use as a tool of manipulation, and therefore why this image cannot be taken as truth, in and of itself. Particularly significant, from my point of view, was the instant belief in the truth of this image among educated, articulate, critically-minded friends and colleagues, many of whom work in visual and cultural fields. Why does the positioning of this image in a social media or news context make it more 'true' than the film/art/advertising/political/propagandic images they spend their working life decoding and even distrusting?
I recently heard Richard Broomhall speak at the premiere of his film Got You Mouse, a Peninsula Arts Film Commission, about an AI tool he had used to map the movements of soldiers in some of the archive footage, and which he claimed could then be used to replicate those movements. He used the case of this video (below) of Obama as an example.
We cannot trust images. We cannot assume that the context of a news website makes this rule inapplicable. We cannot continue reacting without thought to whichever images confirm our beliefs. Images are manipulation. Images are manipulated. The camera lies.
Russian troll confesses
Plymouth Conservative society suspended