How True are Photographs?

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Photography is a combination of art and science. Mankind has always tried to record himself and his surroundings in one form or the other. The early cave paintings and famous canvas paintings by renowned painters has left a beautiful pictorial track of our history. The present form of photography developed slowly from the initial form ‘Camera Obscura’. People were aware of the principles of photography even before it was created.

The instrument used to process photos was called the Camera Obscura. Photos could not be printed but could be processed on a wall or paper. It is not certain as to when the concept of Obscura was invented but there is a manuscript by an Arabian scholar Hassan Ibn Hassan dated 10th century that describes the principles on which camera Obscura works and on which analogue photography is based today. The final revolution in photography world came in the 18th century, with the Kodak camera.

Soon photography, to the people of 19th century, was believed to present accurate representations of the world around them. Since its origin, photography was fêted as a truth-telling technology for the public, a fine art, was exploited for its commercial potential and was also a medium for the state to manipulate its civilians. Yet, do we want to hear this truth? Do the audience, the society and the spectators want the truth? But, one of the major questions that arise before arguing over the truth is, if it really matters.


Susan Sontag in her essay On Photography writes,” Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it.” So, if the evidence itself is doubtful can the audience trust the photographs? The answer can be both yes and no. As, even if the photograph is distorted or set up yet it can be claimed that something existed during that period of time and an effort has been made to represent it. Sontag further wrote, “…the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience.”

The modeling photographs we see in every newspaper magazine or online are either tampered by using Photoshop or clicked at angles to make the subject appear as the photographer wishes. Many pictures of World War II have been staged, censored or glorified and all have different perspectives depending upon who sees it and how. In the 21st century photography is not a mere show of experiences but also a way to alter these experiences through editing. Our inherent desire to click the best moments, the happiest events only shows the partial truth. The historical photographs might present to us the ways of living of those times but they too have been altered, not by Photoshop rather by the photographer’s eyes because he/she chose to capture that incident at that particular time or day. In-fact even the camera lens seems to alter the reality by either brightening or dulling the true shades. A photograph may show a person in a circle of many people, smiling and laughing yet the truth might be that the person is lonely and sad. The reality of photographs keeps changing, depending on the camera, place, photographer and even the subject. Your passport, pan card and facebook photographs might not be similar at all. The same person can appear much more attractive or less attractive as compared to his/her photograph. Photographs of Shimla are very attractive but just down the Mall Road one can see dirty roads and poor vendors.

The truth behind the photographs which reaches the audience is so narrowed down that at times there is no other perspective but what we are forced to see. If one clicks the image of a beautiful Goa beach or sky high Mumbai apartments or Gurgaon malls, the viewer is confined to acknowledge that this is the truth of that place. Wars are depicted through photographs of joy of victory or somber men at work rather than the true gruesome and ghastly disasters. Although war photography aims at renouncing war, it ironically justifies, lionizes and romanticizes the bloodshed on the name of patriotism. Thus, the photographer’s perspective frames the photos according to his ideologies, erasing everything that seems inappropriate or unnecessary to him.

But is the photographer at fault? Photographers are artists with their own perspectives and point of views and too are under the constraints of the ideological state apparatus. Reality is fluid and so is the perception of the photographer. The photograph, the evidence of history, in itself goes through so many interpretations that the reality ends into a situation of flux and so, one comes to the conclusion that a photo’s meaning is based on its interpretation and the story we tell about it. The interiority of the subject, the background we imagine or interpret is a result of what we know about the context in which the image was made and had the context, location or focus been changed, the very photographs would have a completely different reality.




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