There are few discussions surrounding photography more studied, written about, and perhaps more circular and cyclical than that of photography and the ‘truth’. From Robert Capa’s falling soldier to Elsie Wright’s images of the Cottingley Fairies, from the controversy surrounding post-production in the work of Steve McCurry to the 1936 Berlin Olympics images of Leni Riefenstahl. There are too many examples to list here, these are just a few that come to my mind. Truth in photography is complex and unreliable.
A second common discussion amongst photographers is that of the importance of Instagram. One actually send to me recently that Instagram wasn’t about photography. A description of a platform that would not exist without photography! And consists of only photography is evidently not about photography! I understand what the photographer meant by his comment, he was referring to his own understanding of what ‘photography’ is, serious photography created by photographers. But really…
Here we have a question of expectation and interpretation, both of which are subjective. Of course the truth can also be perceived as being subjective but recent events involving photography, Instagram and the selfie have raised some interesting questions concerning photographies role as evidence.
You would have to be related to an ostrich with your head buried firmly deep underground to have been unaware of the recent situations concerning Prince Edward, Jeffery Epstein, Donald Trump, Lev Parnas and Rudi Giuliani. A particularly troubling list of names and certainly not a grouping that you would expect to see in an article concerning photography, but stay with me on this.
All of these men have something in common but only one stands out. Lev Parnas has been faced with a list of people claiming never to have met him, his response has been to make public his numerous selfies, many of which he had posted on Instagram of him with the very people claiming not to know who he is. The others have all been faced with photographs that show them with people they claimed not to know or had severed ties with. These selfies, these photographs present a time stamped irrefutable truth.
And yet, those included in the images choose to deny the evidence that is so clearly in front of them as this recent Washington Post headline shows.
“The Trump team keeps denying it knows Lev Parnas, despite growing photographic evidence.”
The term ‘photographic evidence’ is an interesting one and perhaps brings an element of undeniable truth to the photographs of Prince Andrew with his arm around a girl, of Lev Parnas repeatedly with Trump and Giuliani, of Prince Andrew with Epstein and Trump with Epstein.
Of course the truth can always be denied. It can be manipulated, distorted and re-interpreted just as a photograph can. However, as an instrument of factual placing of one person with another in the shape of an informal selfie its evidential value is becoming increasingly important.
As Jack Nicholson in the role of Colonel Jessop said to Tom Crusie as LTJG Kaffee in Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men:
Jessup: You want answers?!
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessup: You can’t handle the truth!
Perhaps Nicholson could now say, “You can’t handle the truth! But beware the existence of selfies and Instagram, they will make you accept the truth!”
© Grant Scott 2020
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.