Not being able to see very clearly is believing


General Photography


After months of fighting in Libya, the news just arrived that Muammar Gaddafi is dead (notice the James Bond villain detail here: A golden gun). As is probably inevitable, footage of the corpse is making the rounds. If you’ve seen stills - and how could you get around it given it’s being shown almost everywhere - you might not have watched the actual “footage”: a video (or videos? I only watched one), shot with a cell-phone camera. I want to think I’m pretty good at visual pattern recognition, but it was pretty tough. It was very hard to see anything, what with the camera moving so quickly. Mind you, this is not the first time we’ve seen such imagery emerge (remember Neda?), and it had me thinking. (more)

With this kind of imagery, it’s almost as if it’s more believable than regular photography (or higher-end video). Of course, news agencies have to be careful when using it. But most people seem to be very willing to take it for granted that those kinds of images are real. I’m very tempted to think that part of the reason why so many photojournalists use iPhones (and those insufferable apps) to do their work is not because it’s easier or more cutting-edge: It’s because such images are more widely believed than the ones they might take with their high-end SLRs.

I suppose we could have all kinds of arguments about photography, truth and all that stuff now. But what this seems to come down to is the following. Most people think that something is true at least in part because they want to believe that it’s true. That’s why, for example, American conservatives do not believe in global warming despite the overwhelming scientific evidence: They just don’t want to believe in it, so it’s simply not true.

These lo-fi video and cell-phone images work in similar ways I think: They are so much more believable because we want to believe they’re true. Or maybe we just feel that they must be true. The photography itself doesn’t even really enter this equation, or it might enter only in part.

The global-warming analogy seems apt to me: People usually try to argue with global-warming deniers about the scientific evidence as if a lack of evidence was the problem. It’s not. In the same fashion, we can continue having arguments about photography and Photoshop/manipulation etc., but that’s not really the problem with news images. I’ve written this before: the media have lost our trust - to a large extent because they have abused it (and thus us) so badly - and they’re not going to get it back by having discussions about photography.

Photographically, I find those cell-phone images very interesting, because they work so well despite the fact that they’re so unsatisfactory in a strictly visual sense. In fact, I think once cell-phone cameras will get better and better, people’s willingness to believe them will actually decrease.

It’s almost as if absolute certainty can only exist if there’s an element of uncertainty involved. Maybe this would be our equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle from the world of Quantum Mechanics.