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Friday, December 03, 2021

Lies photography told me

The fuss over Steve McCurry's photos should help us get over the misunderstanding that photography is the "truth", because that it is not. It is fiction in the guise of non-fiction, and we all know how dangerous and alluring that can be.

Written by Dayanita Singh |
Updated: June 12, 2016 5:20:24 pm
Photographer  Steve McCurry during a lecture at New Delhi.  Express Photo by Renuka Puri. 07.02.13. There is an ongoing debate around photographer Steve McCurry’s photos when it was alleged that many of his prints had been edited. (Express Photo by Renuka Puri)

I frankly don’t know what the fuss about Steve McCurry’s photos is all about. By removing a lamp post or adding one, the meaning of his images does not change. They remain stereotypical “exotic India” images. It’s not as though they somehow become more contemplative. They are magazine photos meant to grab your attention – and so they remain. In fact, I doubt whether he would himself have wanted to make those changes, for they hardly alter his image anyway. Perhaps, they were done by an eager lab assistant, or someone showing him what Photoshop could do.

The important point is to get over this misunderstanding that photography is the “truth”, because that it is not. It is fiction in the guise of non-fiction, and we all know how dangerous that can be.

On the one hand, it is wonderful that photography is now truly democratised with the mobile phone. But, on the other hand, I also see great danger there. While we all are made to feel that we have one common visual language in photography, beyond literacy and beyond geography, photography is also open to miscommunication, as it relies not just on the photographer’s interpretation, but equally on the viewer’s.

For me, photography is most magical when it says the unsayable, when it goes where there is no vocabulary. And maybe this is the language of the future. I am sorry for McCurry, but it could be his big gift to the world in forcing us to see how photography might tell lies. Photographers always knew this without saying so in so many words, just that now it’s in the mainstream.

The portrait I made of you, or more likely of your mother, is not really a portrait of her. It’s a portrait of how she responded to me. So, in a sense, it is as much my portrait. But because you recognise her features, you believe it’s entirely her photo.

Photography uses real information to build its constructed narrative. You trust it because you recognise the specific elements, but that is where the “truth” of the image ends. If there is any truth, it’s in the fact that that it was the photographer’s truth, at that particular time, in those particular inner and outer circumstances. And we think that is “evidence” enough.

The lie starts with where you place the frame, what you include and what you leave out. Some would say this is the skill of photographers, to edit out from the world what they do not want to show to the viewer. I call this one’s own voice – precisely in what one chooses to leave out of the frame. I would even push further what Roland Barthes says about the punctum, and say that the punctum is not in the frame but outside it. When so much depends on where you place the frame, what truth can the photograph offer?

Robert_Doisneau_photographed_by_Bracha_L._Ettinger_in_his_studio_in_Montrouge,_1992 Robert Doisneau confessed in 1993 that he used paid models to make the 1950 photograph of the kissing couple, one of the world’s most famous images.

Then, there is the next level of “deception”, if you like, where you can turn day into night and add clouds to a clear sky, all in the darkroom of the past. You decide what you darken, and where you highlight. As photographers have always known, photographs were “made” in the darkroom. Now, Photoshop has replaced the darkroom.

The last level of deception is just by virtue of your presence as the photographer. That changes the situation because people behave differently when there is a camera around. We see this again and again in conflict situations like wars, riots and even natural disasters.

Once we accept that photography’s truth is just the photographer’s truth, and accept that the photographer is a storyteller, then why should we object to how best he can tell his story? There is the manipulation of the image, and there is also the constructed image, where you have missed the scene of crime and “recreated” it. Photographic history has many examples of this, including Felice Beato possibly digging out people’s bones to scatter them in a photo made six months after a massacre, to give us the image we all know so well of the 1857 Mutiny in Lucknow.

At the very beginning of photography, there is a photograph, by Hippolyte Bayard of his own fake suicide in response to Louis Daguerre getting all the glory and wealth for the invention of the photographic process. Robert Doisneau confessed in 1993 that he used paid models to make the 1950 photograph of the kissing couple, one of the world’s most famous images.

So, if the photographer is a storyteller, he must use whatever means he finds suitable to best tell the story he wants you to hear. What is the problem there? As long as you understand that the only “reality” is the photographer’s. It is in this “fiction’ of photography that its magical power lies; otherwise, one may as well be a photocopy machine.

The photographs of the future will be assemblages, where people will stitch together different elements from different images. It will be rare to see the single image as we know it. An entire wedding in one frame, for example, or multiple weddings in one portrait. Then, finally, it will be clear to all that photography is not the truth.

Dayanita Singh is an artist whose medium is photography

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