Is Seeing Believing?

Photos as Images

Even though the technology of photographic images is scarcely more than 150 years old, we have come to accept and depend on it in fundamental ways. For many, a photograph serves as a record of reality and proof that something indeed happened.

Of course, there are strong reasons why we treat photography and photographs with a special status. Drawings, paintings, and photos are types of images. An image, after all, is always an image of something. In this respect, it denotes its subject. An image, however also depicts its subject: It represents how the subject appears or looks. Photographs, on the other hand, have an important feature that distinguishes them from drawings and paintings. The manner in which the subject is portrayed in a photograph is presumably caused by the subject itself—that is, the light reflected from that subject. We talk about photos capturing the moment because they, in fact, do capture the light reflected at that moment. We can take a picture of a particular cat only because cats exist. A painter may employ an actual model but doesn’t necessarily have to. The artist can use his or her imagination to conjure the scene depicted in a drawing or painting. For that reason, a drawing of a unicorn would hardly be considered proof that unicorns exist.

Accordingly, we assume photographs to have an imprint of reality that is not afforded other types of images. This assumption is not always warranted. The history of photography and photojournalism is marked by a number of cases that challenge the credibility of the photograph as a record of reality and the truth.

Manipulating the Subject Matter

Mathew Brady, the famed Civil War photojournalist, staged the subject matter of some of his most powerful images. For example, transporting or rearranging the corpses on the battlefield perhaps created a more effective visualization than simply recording the soldiers where they fell. See Figure 1. Such practices are deceptive, though not as damning as staging hoaxes. In other words, the objects depicted in the image are very real; the photographer has simply added a dramatic effect to convey what the original scene could not (presumably).

Brady and his associates are not the only wartime photojournalists who have been accused of manipulating their subject matter. Robert Capa, the prize-winning photographer of three wars, is the center of a controversy over his dramatic "Death of a Spanish Loyalist." See Figure 2. The photograph is reputed to have been taken just at the moment a soldier was fatally wounded. Some have questioned the authenticity of this photograph, citing the unlikely odds of capturing such a scene. Unfortunately, Capa was killed by a land mine during the Vietnam War, and the controversy continues.

There has also been some confusion over the authenticity of the famed photograph of the marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima. The photographer has insisted that the shot was spontaneous, unlike an accompanying one that was clearly posed.

Authentic or not, all of these examples point to the fact that we are troubled or concerned if we find out that a dramatic photograph proves to be staged or manipulated. This could be true only because we naturally assume that photographs represent the world as it is and not as fiction—or even dramatic enhancement.

The crop or frame of a photographic image is a more subtle form of manipulation. Photographers have known for a long time that the emotional impact of an image can be affected by how the scene is framed within the image. A tightly cropped image draws the observer directly to its content. On the other hand, a scene depicted in a large frame or field can evoke an entirely different kind of response.

Magazine covers today, for example, display photographs that have been manipulated in this manner to grab or catch the eye. Sometimes they can even convey a message. Compare the original photo with its eventual use as a Sports Illustrated cover in Figure 3. The cover clearly conveys more violence and menace compared to a typical play shot.

Besides cropping, the image was manipulated in other ways too. It was enlarged at the top in order to accomodate the banner; and the strap was removed from the quarterback's helmet. It also appears that the position of the players has been subtly altered as well. The quarterback's left (background) arm has been move to a more acute angle. Likewise the defensive player is shifted a little more headlong into the quarterback. In addition, normal adjustments to color and balance were made for printing. Even though these are fairly normal practices, not all journalists agree on their use. Again, the issue is heightened because or our natural trust in the power of photos to represent things as they are.


©Abernethy and Allen, 2003.
Furman University
Last modified: 1/04

Figure 1. The battlefield photo of Gettysburg was taken by Timothy O'Sullivan, an assistant to Matthew Brady. The bodies were said to have been rearranged on the field to increase the dramatic effect of the scene. (Library of Congress.)

Figure 2. The photo of the Spanish Loyalist first appeared in Life Magazine in 1936. Wartime photojournalist Robert Capa captured the shot just at the "moment of death." However, his claims have been disputed by some. It is said that this was staged instead. (Copyright, Robert Capa, Magnum Photos, Inc.)

Figure 3. The original photo (top) looks very different from its use as a Sports Illustrated cover. The image is carefully cropped for dramatic effect. The label is also a powerful cue affecting the image.