Truth in Photography

by Justin Black


A recent dialog with a friend and fellow photographer got me thinking about truth in photography. For over 170 years, we have relied on photographs to document and share information about the world around us. How many books and documentary films have relied on photographs to connect us with the reality of events and the familiar humanity of lives long past? Using photographs we’ve seen, we construct a broader picture of the reality within which we live, though we may experience only a tiny percentage of it directly. I’ve never been to the Taj Mahal, and yet it’s part of my reality, in large part because of photographs.

Of course, it has long been said that photography routinely misleads us by means of the selective and exclusionary perspective of the lens and the agenda or tastes of the photographer, despite the noblest intentions of honesty. Before even considering the problem of manipulation in the computer or darkroom, some would even go so far as to say that every photograph lies the moment it is accompanied by the claim that it represents “truth.”

Is this photograph a lie? The seven-minute exposure smoothed out the surface of the choppy lake, a polarizing filter was used to remove glare and enhance the view underwater, the scale of the tufa towers isn’t clear, it shows a selectively cropped scene within an arbitrary square box, and it is in black and white. A person standing in the same spot at the same time would experience a very different “truth,” seen through their own eyes.

Seven Minutes at Twilight. Mono Lake, California.  © 2007 Justin Black


There there are different aspects of truth, however.  Truth certainly is captured in photographs, but it’s photographic truth, which is very different from our experience of truth through other channels. The way we experience, perceive, and interpret a photograph is, from the start, radically different from our internal process of visual cognition of the real world in real time, and yet we do routinely interpret them to gain the benefit of useful information, concepts, and facts they communicate. We can also be misled by their various limitations or unique capabilities. And, while they are frozen two-dimensional images, they enable us to glimpse a four-dimensional spacetime in a way that we otherwise can’t perceive.

As nature photographers, we are regularly confronted with the choice of including or excluding evidence of human activity in our pictures. On the one hand, we have the truth that Yosemite Valley is a developed place with busy roads and tourist facilities (that many, but certainly not all, photographers take deliberate care to compose out of their images), and on the other there is the truth that the sheer granite west face of Half Dome is oriented to catch long wavelengths of the visible spectrum around sunset. Out of the context of a particular purpose or audience for the images, it is equally valid to make a picture of a tourist traffic jam in Yosemite Valley or a composition of Half Dome glowing orange in evening light without a visible trace of human presence. Either image could be artful or dull as dirt, and both represent certain facts, though neither captures the whole truth of the place.

It could be reasonably argued that all photographs made on the surface of the Earth lie because they give the impression that the surface is flat and completely ignore the truth of the opposite side of the planet. Spoken or written words can inform us of fact and aspects of truth or they can lie, and I suppose any verbal statement could be considered a lie by omission. Or, we could simply consider each discrete statement to be a segment of information, which is all a photograph really is.

Photographs are always incomplete statements, which is why accompanying captions and essays are so important to photojournalism. The photograph provides a limited set of information that helps us to better understand a broader reality, though without words it might be misleading on its own. One also has to take into account the knowledge and savvy of the audience. When a photographer shows us a photo of pristine wilderness, it informs us that places like that do exist, even when we may be well aware that such places are the exception rather than the rule and that humanity’s mark on the planet is ubiquitous. It documents a small piece of the truth that may be tremendously enlightening to the worldview of those who have never experienced the place first-hand, though it is obviously not representative of the whole truth. A photo of an apparently pristine landscape that is made from the driveway of the toxic waste dump next door could be considered a sort of lie if the reality of its circumstances are undisclosed by the photographer, or, in concert with text, it could be used to tell a story about land use management or to show how some heavily contaminated landscapes may appear healthy at first glance.

Context and message are critical to how a photograph is interpreted, and the intent, bias, agenda, and taste of the photographer must always be considered alongside the facts and notions gleaned from a photograph as we use them to enlighten our notions of a more universal truth. As photographers, the choices we make powerfully influence the way in which truth and meaning is interpreted from our images, whether we consider our work artistic expression, documentary record, or both.