Responsibility and Truth in Photography

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George W. Ackerman

When seeing a depiction of a place, I sometimes wonder what I would think if I came from there. If I came from Congo, say, what would I think or feel about Richard Mosse‘s decorative candy-coloured photographs that are such a big hit in the art world? What would I think or feel about the various claims made about those photographs supposedly posing a new way to approach war photography?

I have no way of knowing an answer to this hypothetical question. It’s true, I could simply ask people from Congo what their thoughts are. But then, is it the artist’s responsibility to render a place according to the wishes of those who live there? Is that the ultimate goal of art? To please, to placate, to make us feel good?

Given that I phrased the preceding questions the way I did, you can sense that I have an answer: No, that’s not what art, good art, should do. An artist (a photographer, painter, writer, …) has to take care of what s/he considers to be her/his own responsibility, and if that offends the people in Congo, Appalachia, or wherever else then so be it.

Of course, I just seemingly made the mistake of defining what made good art. Not quite. To remain with the depiction of a place, good art is not automatically being generated by an artist following her/his own responsibility. There is a lot more to what it takes to produce good art. But the artist remaining true to her/his responsibility is the very first step. Without it, I’m happy to argue, you can’t have good art. You will only have tourist-brochure material, or propaganda, or infomercials, or whatever else you get: bad art, art that subscribes to a larger ideology, art that lets that larger ideology dictate its flow, art that prescribes the viewer’s engagement.

Photography still finds itself in a difficult situation in this general discussion. A painter is unlikely to ever encounter any of the various arguments with which photography is often treated. A painting obviously is an artifact in the way that photography is not. You can take a photograph in such a way that even though it is a complete artifact (all photographs are), it will look like an objective depiction of whatever was in front of the camera’s lens.

This is territory that many people find hard to navigate. If a camera is a little machine that faithfully records what is in front of it and that displays just that, then obviously it’s the photographer who screws up if there is a problem. Now, a camera is not at all just some little machine that does that. It never faithfully records what was in front of it, and the many steps that lie between the pressing of the shutter’s button and the display of the resulting image (in whatever form) make the connection between reality and picture very, very difficult.

So for a start, in order to understand what good art might be in the context of photography, we first have to understand the very nature of the medium itself, the question to what extent or how it depict reality (however we want to define it) in a faithful manner (however we want to define that).

To a large extent, a photographer’s responsibility appears to then derive from her/his understanding of how the medium operates. If you believe in the camera as a tool that will faithfully record strictly what is in front of it, it’s likely that you will demand the same from its operator.

If, however, you believe that the sheer number of choices made by a photographer results in something that while having a specific relationship to what was in front of the camera at the end is an interpretation of reality, not a depiction, then you’re likely to view the topic of responsibility very differently. In this case, it’s about being truthful to the photographer’s intentions, which, ideally, are based very strongly on her/his understanding of what a camera does.

These two positions, when viewed carefully, are actually not that different at all if we remain close to the process of taking pictures itself. In both cases, it’s the photographer’s understanding of the medium that appears to inform her/his responsibilities: This is what a camera allows me to do, this is what a camera can do, and I will use it now in such a way that takes good care of things.

Where they ultimately differ is where they concern the truth. In the first case, we’re essentially dealing with a truth in the form of the Truth: the world at large, that which we all have access to and – somewhat mythologically – can all see equally, with our own eyes (even though, in reality the “machines” that operates those eyes, our brains, are all quite different). In the second case, we’re dealing with what we could call the photographer’s truth. A photographer’s truth is very different. It is essentially what the photographer wants us to see. It is, and this brings me back to why we still struggle so much with photography, the only truth available in this medium.

To bring things back to the idea of responsibility, the photographer’s truth in part derives from her/his understanding of what the medium does and how it does it. A photographer needs to understand (and master) whatever process s/he is using to make pictures, whether it is based on an 8×10 camera, a cell phone, or any of the other various devices in between – much like a painter has to understand how pigments can be put onto a canvas.

Good art is being made by competent artists, and that is always true regardless of whether or not one likes the art in question. That alone justifies the role of criticism, since someone actually has to do the job of looking at whether any piece of art is done well, meaning done perfectly according to the parameters defined by the context it is placed in. Those parameters can be very different for different types of art, and they often make it very hard for people who are not part of a given context to understand what’s going on: the idea that “my kid could do that” originates from just that, a profound mistaking of a seemingly simple form for simple art. Unfortunately for photographers, their medium is one of the “simple” ones – isn’t all you do to press one button?

What we can say about Mosse’s photographs from Congo is that they’re obviously very competently done, regardless of whether or not we like them, of whether or not we agree with whatever message they might convey. Beyond that, things get iffy, though. How, after all, do we want to define what good art actually is? Given how much paper – and electricity – people have spent trying to define it, I’m not going to get into that.

Instead, I really just want to focus on the fact that while photography is taken from the world, it is not the world. So we must not judge art photography in ways that forgets this crucial difference. We can only see a photographer’s truth, a truth grounded in all kinds of things, some of them present in front of the camera’s lens, but many others embedded in her/his mind. And that truth is what we have to engage with. It might not be our truth. It might not even be the truth of the majority.

As I noted earlier, it’s not an artist’s role to pander to her/his audience. Instead, it’s her/his responsibility to present us with a truth that will make us examine our own. After all, maybe we’re all wrong? Maybe there is a different way to see things? This still appears to be such a tough pill to swallow once photographs are involved, because the medium seemingly is so simple. But as we all know so well now, even Facebook galleries aren’t faithful depictions of people’s lives. They’re carefully curated. They’re propaganda (even though some propagandists are smarter than others).

Photographs don’t lie. To say a photograph lies is to believe that there can be such a thing as an objectively truthful photograph. There can never be. All photographs present a truth: their makers’. The issue is not whether or not that truth has any relation to the Truth. The issue is, instead, what photographs tell us about our own truths, about those beliefs that we take for so granted, that we stick to so obsessively, weighing what we see.

The photographer’s responsibility is not to present us with the Truth. Her/his responsibility instead is to present us with a truth that, crucially, will make us re-examine (not: confirm) our own. That is why or how photography can be art. And if it’s done well, then we have good photographic art. But the “good” doesn’t come out of what we want. Instead, it comes out of what we are made to experience, whether we like it or not.

(French: Responsabilité et vérité en photographie)