In Writing, Research, & Technology we have learned that over time, the definition and definitive purpose of photography has varied. Some declare it art for art’s sake. Some have seen photography as a mere scientific, chemical process. Some claim that photographs are evidence; that they communicate truth. I am going to reflect on the power of photography, semiotic theory, and how we create meaning, citing three of Errol Morris’s investigative interviews and commentary. The articles are developed primarily around three different photographs—and the purported truths tied to them. His New York Times editorials, “The Most Curious Thing,” “Photography as a Weapon,” and “Will the Real Hooded Man Please Stand Up” mirror all of the challenges that come along with meaning-making and perception within a highly emotive medium.
“Photographs reveal and they conceal.”
In “The Most Curious Thing,” Morris dives deep into the heart of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003. He interviews Sabrina Harman, the soldier in the photo below, as well as other officers present and in charge at the time of the pictured prisoner’s death.
Morris brings forth the testimonies of Harman, and many others, to form a timeline of photos and statements, organizing an otherwise murky, confusing slew of stories. He gives as clear a picture as possible of what happened to the man in the photo, how he died, why soldiers took pictures of him, and why they were smiling. Once he straightened out all the facts, Morris wanted to know: Why, regardless of knowing Harman’s innocence, did the photo still make people feel uneasy? Why was it so condemning? His interview with Paul Ekman, former professor of Psychology at the University of California, analyzed Harman’s smile in the photograph. When he studied other comparative photos of Harman, Ekman found that, because her orbicularis oculi pars lateralis muscles were not active, her smile was not ‘genuine;’ she was not happy or joyous when she was photographed. Morris gets down to whether or not most people can tell ‘genuine’ from ‘fake’ smiles, why it may matter, and why Harman may still seem guilty to people, regardless of them knowing the truth. Ekman explains:
“Harman is smiling. We see her smile and can’t help smiling ourselves. Smile and the whole world smiles with you. Smiling is contagious. But when we see the dead man, we recoil in horror. Our “almost irresistible” need to smile makes us feel complicit in the man’s death. We “transfer” those feelings to Harman. We think her smile makes her complicit.”
Photographs both reveal and conceal. If Harman hadn’t taken photographs of the dead prisoner, the world may have never known of the abuse taking place in Abu Ghraib prison. If she hadn’t smiled, it wouldn’t have been so easy for people to assume she was somehow involved in the prisoner’s death.
So, can photographs really be called evidence? Our reading, Remembrance, by Annette Kuhn, answers this question quite well:
“Photographs are evidence, after all. Not that they are to be taken at face value, necessarily, nor that they mirror the real, nor even that a photograph offers any self-evident relationship between itself and what it shows. Simply that a photograph can be material for interpretation—evidence, in that sense: to be solved, like a riddle; read and decoded, like clues left behind at the scene of a crime. Evidence of this sort, though, can conceal, even as it purports to reveal, what it is evidence of.”
Our video mashup projects illuminated some sort of social issue. Because these topics were something that we wanted our audience to take notice of and care about, we had to perfect ways of getting their attention. Different images evoke different emotional responses, and disturbing images not only grab people’s attention, but tend to be the primary thing that they remember.
“…photography can make us think we know more than we really know.”
In “Photography as a Weapon,” Errol Morris investigates the photograph above, after it was published on the front page of major newspapers, then later revealed by the small blog, Little Green Footballs, to be fraudulent. He consulted Hany Farid, a Dartmouth professor and digital photography expert, to review the Iranian missile photographs and explain why they were fraudulent and how they were tampered with. Morris and Farid also got into a more philosophical discussion about why someone may tamper with a photograph to get a certain response, and why images make a much bigger impact on our beliefs and memories than words. Farid explains that even when someone is told a photo is tampered with…
“…you start putting it out there and saying, ‘Oh look, this picture? It’s a fake. This picture? It’s a fake.’ But you know what people remember? They don’t remember, ‘It’s a fake.’ They remember the picture. And there are psychology studies, when you tell people that information is incorrect, they forget that it is incorrect. They only remember the misinformation. They forget the tag associated with it. They did these great studies, especially with older people. They give them information about health, Medicare, Medicaid, that kind of stuff. And they say, ‘this information that you heard? It’s wrong.’ And what ends up happening is, that information gets ingrained into their brains, and even if they are subsequently told it’s wrong, they end up believing it.”
These ideas further support our motives throughout our video mashup and photo essay projects. An image is useless if it must be explained in order to get the desired context or message across. And, we learned that in the right context, with the help of juxtaposition and intertextuality, a seemingly weak image can be very powerful. On the same note, we know that utilizing these theories can also make images in sequence have the complete opposite effect of the same images standing alone. Also, because our brains process images in a different way than they process text, images evoke greater emotional responses.
When we read Scott McCloud’s “Blood in the Gutter,” the same underlying themes regarding how our brains process images rang true. McCloud discusses the concept of closure, and how our perception of the world around us is pieced together as a whole through the fragmented experiences of our senses. Our perception of “reality” is based on images we piece together, with our own beliefs forming the “glue” that assigns them meaning. While creating our projects, we found that this subjectivity made writing with images very tricky. But, we also learned that purposeful, mindful use of images could deliver a message much more effectively than text. Everyone can interpret images differently, so context is the key to shifting your audience in the right direction.
“Photography presents things and at the same time hides things from our view. It allows us to not-see at the same time that it allows us to see.”
Morris’s article, “Will the Real Hooded Man Please Stand Up,” investigates a different photograph from Abu Ghraib prison, that attracted media attention.
In this investigation, the press made another huge mistake. They published a story about the “Hooded Man” where Ali Shalal Qaissi posed for photographs and gave commentary on his story. But, Mr. Qaissi was not the hooded man in the photograph. The Times retracted their story within a week, and explained the mistake. It was assumed that Mr. Qaissi lied because the iconic photograph drew more media attention to his time at Abu Ghraib. Even though he was not the man in the photo, he was subjected to abuse, and wanted the public to know.
But, Morris thought there was more to this story. He wanted to explore the “central role that photography itself played in the mistaken identification, and the way that photography lends itself to those errors and may even engender them.” Morris illuminates that The Times’ story is so much more powerful because of the image they presented to the public. Again, regardless of the truth, the image is what readers will remember and believe. Morris explains that “the photo of a man holding a photo of the man in the iconic photo created an associative link much stronger than mere words might have. We see the man who purports to be the Hooded Man in a photograph, holding the Hooded Man photograph.”
Photographs, as well as images and symbols, form narratives, tell stories, and suggest connections. Unlike text, they deeply imprint our minds, and we hold onto them, and our interpretation of them, as we would a memory. When people ‘read’ images, they are forced to sift through the intertextuality of emotional ties and social and cultural symbols, in order to make meaning. Anything from context to accompanying words can change the interpretation of an image. We have been manipulating the way images are ‘read’ long before Photoshop. (Below are some Propaganda posters from WWII.)
Translation: “This is the Salvation They bring!”
Translation: “Whoever reads bourgeois newspapers becomes blind and deaf. Away with these stultifying bandages.”
Photographs both reveal and conceal the truth. And, the way we ‘write’ with images continues to grow and change every day.