Documentary, performance and fictions – Seeing is believing


Read the WeAreOCA blog post ‘Seeing is Believing’.

Read all the replies to it then write your own comment, both on the blog page and in your own blog. Make sure that you visit all the links on the blog post. Base your opinion on solid arguments and, if you can, refer to other contributions to the blog.

Ok…here goes…

The blog post begins with news of the Royal Wedding and the death of Bin Laden and how the ‘absence of visual proof of Osama Bin Laden’s death’ dominated the news headlines. Quite aptly the thread also mentions Joan Fontcuberta and his then latest work, Deconstructing Osama, covering the media circus surrounding Al Qaida and Bin Laden: tackled ‘with his trademark irony and sense of humour, ‘photoshopping’ himself in many of the images in the book disguised as Osama Bin Laden.’

We are asked, do we need this photographic evidence? The author, Jose, didn’t care. At the time I don’t think I cared either. I don’t particularly care to stare at dead people whatever the circumstances. If I am told he is dead then I guess I have to believe.

President Obama said ‘It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool.’ (Guardian 2011) Which reveals the other power of photography.

As we all know images can be faked so would we have known if it was real or staged in any event? Jose concludes by saying: ‘The US government reticence to release the image has already done photography a lot of good, paradoxically.It has reminded us that photography still has documentary value after all.’

The main question posed is: ‘Seeing is believing. Or is it ?

Onto the comments, and there are now LOTS, I’m going to make it 64!

The first comment I came across mentions Baudrillard’s The Gulf War did not happen. This would appear to be quite ‘heavy philosophical going,’ so I looked about and found this blog post which covers some of the mis-information/PR the public can be given.

And a suggested video to watch…

Imaginary…symbolic…real…I’m not going to summarise it…watch it lololol… is a link that no longer works, which is a shame as I thought it would be interesting to discover the change in heart over film v digital for authenticity in forensics…

In fact several links no longer take you to specified articles such as The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord, again suggested to be quite heavy going; instead I found and read this…which told me ‘The Society of the Spectacle maps out some aspects of the 21st century directly: not least, so-called celebrity culture and its portrayal of lives whose freedom and dazzle suggest almost the opposite of life as most of us actually live it.’

Like most of The Society of the Spectacle, you have to read such words slowly, but they hit the spot: he is talking about alienation, the commodification of almost every aspect of life and the profound social sea-change whereby any notion of the authentic becomes almost impossible. Whether their writers knew anything about Debord is probably doubtful, but as unlikely it may sound, one way of opening your mind to the idea of the spectacle is maybe to re-watch two hugely successful movies about exactly the blurring of appearance and reality that he described: The Matrix and The Truman Show.

Interesting point…

Peter Haveland commented:

So the truth (whatever that is) may be equally or better represented in fiction than fact; does it matter if the image records an incident or is constructed to represent one; even one that hasn’t happened but tells the story?

Having explored some of the constructed images of Mohamed Bourouissa, Hunter, Essop et al I don’t think it does always matter. was also dead!

…again Peter Haveland commented : There are those that would answer, “yes” to your question and suggest that Big Brother owns Fox News!

Which I found quite apt given the media frenzy around Donald Trump and his alternative facts!

Eileen posted:

A remarkable twist to the reporting of the Bin Laden story: a hasidic Jewish newspaper Photoshops Hillary Clinton out of the Operations room scene: “…we do not publish pictures of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status…”

[and also pointed out] I think that human beings have known how to manipulate our reactions to visual stimuli for a very long time.


Does Hilary’s reaction make the news appear more real? Is what happened less real because she was removed from the photograph? It is still a document of the event even if not quite how it was viewed…another interesting point to ponder.

Stan Dickinson stated somewhere on the forum, “truth lies in beholding, not portraying”. This is one of the most important things mentioned I think. People tend to believe what they want to believe, the Holocaust never happened, the Moon landings were faked and Elvis is still alive!

Lots of debate about faith and religion, I tend to glaze over at this being an unashamed atheist. My ‘crap detector’ overloads at this; I think I would have been good friends with Thomas!

Even good old Schrödinger’s cat gets a mention…

Judy states:

The growth of social media and the immediacy of digital imagery has made it possible for us to watch wars unfold from the comfort of our own sitting rooms. A major downside to the proliferation of such imagery is that photographs of dead bodies and atrocities increasingly fail to repel the viewer, they have become so commonplace as to be cliched, something Anna reflects on.

Jane also had some really valid points to make:

Why are photos so powerful? I think this is partly due to the idea that the camera doesn’t lie but importantly also due to the way we are psychologically wired. NMonckton in his comment on the blog also reflects on this. We are programmed to base our initial assessments and judgements on what we see – 70 to 80% of first impressions rely on appearance for example. We are taught that this can lead to very strong biases e.g. in interviews but how often do we reflect on this when we see a photograph? This in-built assessment facility is however, also the key to our survival and has proved reliable most of the time. However, it is a potential weakness too and one that can be manipulated. Salkeld (2004, p74) argues that “the recognition that photographs can be so powerful is an open invitation to exploit their capacity to affect the viewer and the course of events.”

According to the BJP “Twenty percent of the images in the penultimate round of World Press Photo 2015 were disqualified because they were manipulated”. These were images actually submitted under strict rules so we should wonder what percentage of the images we see everyday are “real”. One judge was quoted in the New York Times as saying “Many of the images we had to disqualify were pictures we all believed in”.

As pointed out by Rob:

At one extreme it allows unscrupulous parties to manipulate situations by damaging but plausible fakery, and at the other it allows paranoid conspiracy theorists to deny the veracity of any photograph.

As David Campbell said, it’s important not to conflate processing with manipulation – it’s about the intent to deceive (New York Times 2015). The problem is, of course, where to draw the line. As useful as it is for photojournalism contest juries to hold photographers to high standards, who is doing this for everyday photojournalism?

As a subscriber to the Canon newsletter from time to time I get sent very interesting links. One fascinating insight was with regards to how the intent of the photographer can lead to different interpretations on how the image is taken. A recent experiment on the power of perspective in portrait photography also underlined my earlier research findings with regards to signifiers, authorship and subjectivity in documentary images. Six photographers were each asked to independently shoot portraits of ‘Michael’, however each photographer was given a different back story: he was a self-made millionaire, someone who has saved a life, an ex-inmate, a commercial fisherman, a self-proclaimed psychic, and a recovering alcoholic.

Only given 10 minutes with the subject, the results were very revealing!

My response on the blog was as follows:


Am here due to documentary exercise…sad that some of the links are dead, I wanted to find out about Banksy…however I did manage to do independent research on some of the points made; my mind has been well and truly blown!

To comment on some of the original posts made back in 2011, especially the banter, is going to be tricky…just posting some well thought out educational comment seems dry…but here goes my response…

Is seeing believing? No. Can I leave it at that? Guess not…

There are too many examples of faked images from the very beginning of photography being used as a serious documentary medium to blindly accept everything you see: Roger Fenton’s moved cannon balls, Alexander Gardener and Matthew Brady in the US civil war moving bodies etc, the Associated Press announcing that it had cut ties with award-winning combat photographer Narciso Contreras after the journalist used Photoshop to doctor an image he’d taken of combat in Syria, Gladys Cockburn-Lange, the supposed widow of a deceased British photographer and flier, made public, in 1933 some shots supposedly taken over the Western Front, a German plane can be seen breaking apart in mid-air, while another photo shows an enemy pilot leaping to certain death from his flaming fighter. It wasn’t until the 1980s that an investigator with the Smithsonian Institute concluded that the pictures were faked using models, and not to mention the famous Iwo Jima shot…

Many of the images, if not all, were originally taken on face value. Apart from a few, the photographs were documenting actual events, some were slightly manipulated, some more so and others a total lie.

this link gives a few more recent examples too

All of those even without getting into the realms of staged documentary…

Fake photographs, fake news which brings me onto Donald Trump

and even when the images have not been tampered with there is always the matter of angle…


So no, I don’t think seeing is believing at all. As Jane pointed out:-

Salkeld (2004, p74) argues that “the recognition that photographs can be so powerful is an open invitation to exploit their capacity to affect the viewer and the course of events.”

Research [Accessed 12/04/2017] [Accessed 12/04/2017] [Accessed 12/04/2017] [Accessed 12/04/2017]


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