They say, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and somehow, we’ve been led to believe that a thousand words means truth. But stop and ask yourself, “whose truth?” A picture is worth a thousand of whose words? Photographs lie. Maybe the more accurate statement is to say that photographs tell the truth that the photographer, subject, publisher wants you to know.
Last night I decided to thumb through “Photography, The Definitive Visual History”, and I just so happened to flip to a page describing how important photographs were as propaganda during World War II. The image on the page was of Hitler. He was bent down, a huge grin plastered on his face, holding a little girl’s hands. She was also smiling. The caption was that she was wishing him a happy birthday. The photo was taken by Hitler’s official photographer, Heinrich Hoffman, in 1934. And this photo wasn’t the only one produced by this photographer to depict Hitler in this happy, loving manner. Hoffman produced several images of him bouncing babies on his lap, patting children’s heads.
Now tell me. If you’d have seen this image in 1934, knowing nothing about who Hitler truly was, what would you have believed? In the photograph, Hitler doesn’t look like a fake. He looks truly genuine. To study the photo, one might even wonder if he’d done all the horrible things he’d done. And yet, some 75 million people died in WWII, and about 6 million Jewish people were murdered. Many more than that suffered.
When I take a photo, I bring my own world view with me. I frame a shot to show something I want to show, to share with you what I see rather than what the person next to me sees. I can use a specific lens to distort reality. I can pose someone in a certain way or I can keep my camera down until the subject does what I want them to do. I can wait for my daughter to stop giving her brother looks out of the side of her eyes and smile. Then what will you see? A little girl who hasn’t had any trouble adapting to being an older sister and who slid into the roll with grace and ease, even though the five seconds prior to the shutter closing, she was ready to get up and walk out of the frame because her one week old brother was “pinching” her.
I know, first hand, how photographs can be used to make a wedding day look and feel completely different than how it felt in real life. I may go into detail about this one in a later post.
Photographs are important. They tell stories. But, if we choose to blindly believe the photograph, if we choose to see Hitler, kindly holding a little girl’s hands, without knowing what he was truly about, we might have chosen to believe he was a good man, a man choosing to fight for the people. Photographs are important, but they lie. A newspaper might use a photograph out of context for their own gain. A photographer will choose to take a certain shot to tell a certain story. A subject may choose to hold themselves a certain way, dress a certain way, or share a certain photo of themselves to make the world believe he is someone likeable or someone to be feared. And I’m not even talking about physically altering a photo using photoshop.
Photographs are important.
But don’t trust them.
Do your own research.
Come back to the photograph. Appreciate it for what it is: a snapshot with bias.