12. Documentary photos

The Great Emancipator

In the previous chapter, I spoke about a distinction between specific truth and universal truth. Specific truth tells the story of an event that involved real people in a specific place at a specific time: a car accident, a robbery, the presentation of an award, for example. In documentary photograph, the ability of the image to convey the truth is important above all other considerations. But throughout its existence, photography has been dogged by an assertion that is NOT true: the camera never lies.

The fact is that the camera always lies. It is incapable of telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The photographer takes a single scene from the continuum that is time and space, wraps a frame around it and calls it truth. But it isn’t. At best, it is a bit of the truth. So a documentary photograph must be judged primarily, in my opinion, on how close it comes to telling the truth.

Secondly, every photograph that has ever been taken has a leaning towards subjectivity. It represents the photographer’s view of the truth and how he feels about it. When we judge a documentary photograph, we are not judging absolute honesty, but how honestly the photographer portrays the truth as he sees it.

Thirdly, documentary photography often offers the photographer little or no control over the scenes that present themselves. Consequently, it is often relatively more difficult for a documentary photographer to create an image that succeeds on a purely visual level. Although, on the other hand, there is often an inherent drama in the situation in which a photo-journalist might find himself and his skill in capturing and portraying that drama is another consideration in judging his work.

Finally, a documentary often demands prior knowledge on the part of the viewer to understand the scene. In the photograph I’ve used to illustrate this point there are two key visual elements: a statue of a man, and a real man. The real man is mopping the floor around the statue. The man in the statue is seated and very large compared to the real man. The real man has black skin.

If you did not know who Abraham Lincoln was (his name appears in the citation above the statue) or the role he played in the emancipation of slaves in the United States, you would not understand the significance of this image. And even if you did know that, and were told that this image was taken in 1973, you would not understand the deeper significance of the image if you did not know that, 10 years earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King had stood on this very spot, making his famous “I have a dream” speech, preaching equality for all Men, regardless of their race, creed or colour. Our understanding of images depends partly on the information that the image provides to us and partly on the knowledge, experience, information and opinions that we already hold within ourselves. The measure of success of an image, in my opinion, is the degree to which it can bridge that gap and connect with us. The ability to tell a story using only a few visual elements and a few visual effects that the photographer assembles and deploys to connect with something deep within the viewer’s psyche is, in my opinion, nothing less than miraculous. And yet it happens, time and again.

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