250mc – Photography as Evidence

Today we spent some time examining the role photography plays in evidential terms. This more specifically referred to the documentary style of image making rather than the forensic type and explored the level of trust we can place in images such as these. We began with this image by Nikki S Lee

(S Lee n.d.)
(S Lee n.d.)

We examined the content of the image and where quick to conclude that this was the image of a stripper taken by Lee, perhaps at the end of a long shift. However we were surprised to learn that this is actually a self-portrait and that Lee has built up a reputation as a photographer that likes to immerse herself within the subject that she is studying and then appear in the images she makes. So, we were not completely wrong but we came up with ‘a truth’ and not all the truth and this is where things start to get very murky.

The media that we view, whether it is a photograph or video will carry with it the intent of the creator who will communicate a message or opinion. What we see is a carefully created perspective and rarely a balanced view. Often but not always this is done deliberately and can largely depend on the motivation of the person making the media. There can be many factors that influence a persons interest in a subject, from being paid to portray a subject in a particular way to being personally involved and emotionally driven. I find it hard to produce any image that has not had some influence and most can easily be categorised as advertising or propaganda albeit very subtly.

One such example is the image of Florence Thompson, better known as ‘Migrant Mother’ taken by Dorothea Lange during Americas great depression in the early 1930s.

(Lange 1936)
(Lange 1936)

This iconic image shows a mother with her children existing within the poverty riddled western states and it is without doubt that their suffering was significant. However the image was commissioned by the FSA (The Farm Security Administration) who amongst their responsibilities was to raise awareness of the plight of the migrant workers.

They employed various photographers whom Dorothea Lange was one to document this but with the specific intent to produce images that could be used to illicit sympathies and raise money. Florence Thompson is only pictured here with 3 of her children yet she actually had seven. The other children where deliberately omitted as it was felt that they would actually erode sympathy as people would take a dim view that she had borne so many children in the first place (Altucher 2011).

Thompson also requested that the images not be published but they were, this did raise $20,000 which was sent to aid the workers but Thompson and her family had moved on by then. Eventually, around 40 years later Thompson was traced and she was still bitter about the image.  Lange had made become wealthy from it but Thompson or her family had not seen a penny of the money it had made. (Aves n.d.)

(Derbalia 2011)
(Derbalia 2011)

Fred Ritchin, Professor of Photography at New Yorks University’s Tisch School of Arts has lamented the manipulation that the digital age has brought in his book ‘After Photography’. In an interview with Wired Magazine he talks about his frustrations with the global media and how they misuse images to influence people. He had been calling for a system that requires images to be declared if they have been manipulated or not in an effort to restore some credibility to the industry, unfortunately his requests have been met with derision with editors stating that they trusted the viewer to be able to determine the authenticity of an image. However, Ritchin points to the increasing commercialisation and methodology people use to make purchases and that they are no longer based on an items practicability and the constant manipulation of editorial images intended to produce specific emotional reactions rather than an honest response to a situation. (Brook 2011)

I have to largely agree with his view however photo manipulation albeit in post production or by staging and image is far from a new concept. Dark room editing has often been used to alter an image from its original form and during the reign of Joseph Stalin in Russia he had images modified to remove Nikolai Yezhov, his former head of the secret police after he was executed in 1940 for disloyalty (Stanger 2014).

(Anon. n.d.)
(Anon. n.d.)

However, the emergence of the digital image has made the manipulation far easier and the proliferation of editing software has placed that power into the hands of anyone who owns a digital device.

Images have influence and the capacity to sway opinion and with the ability handed to anyone to alter images to suit their needs then is it any wonder that any image can be believed. Ultimately I do not believe it is possible for anything to offer an unbiased view. Everything in some way either deliberately or inadvertently carries with it the influence of its creator. This is unavoidable and all things must be approached with a critical mind and the skill should be to never fully accept anything as absolute as there is always another opinion.


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