The Truth? Can You Handle the Truth?

There are few more discussed, dissected or diversive aspects of photography than its relationship with the truth. There is even a website dedicated to the issue www.truthinphotography.org that launched in 2021. Truth is a hot topic and a controversial one. Photography is documental evidence of an event, a place or a person that can be used in court or a prosecution, it shows what happened and how things looked, doesn’t it?

Well of course it does, unless it is manipulated. The truth can be manipulated, we know that, your truth may not be my truth and vice versa. In an interview with Chris Boot for Aperture the founder of Truth in Photography stated that “Truth in photography is a question, not an answer. Truth in photography is a perception. It’s a feeling. In many ways, it’s intangible.” I disagree. The truth is the truth and anything else is something else. This has never been more important than it is now in a world where the truth seems to have little value to some and no meaning to others. If you don’t believe me just look at the current situation in the United States concerning the 2020 election.

Truth in photography has to be more than a feeling and it needs to be tangible, it cannot be left to the emotions to define its validity. Let’s leave the discussion concerning truth within photographic capture for the moment and focus on the artefact.

Truth in the photographic artefact remains with the photographer, it is their responsibility to either capture the ‘seen’ or clearly state the ‘created’. Constructed or manipulated must be identified by the maker to state a distortion of a reality. I am deliberately using the word reality here rather than truth to differentiate opinion from fact. Framing, positioning and editing can provide opinion, but they should not manipulate fact intentionally. The moment of capture allows the photographer to express fact and opinion but when one overrides the other the photographer has made a deliberate decision to mislead the viewer of the image.

This decision is that of the photographer and the photographer only. There is no one else viewing the scene or making the image. They control the camera, the lens, the depth of field, the composition and the edit.

Therefore we should have no issue with truth and the photographic image. There should be no need for any grey area, the truth is not intangible and it is the photographer’s responsibility to ensure that there is no incongruity. The problem of course comes if the photographer wishes to impose their own truth into their images, to misinterpret the reality of a situation. Is this a conscious decision? If so perhaps we should not question the intention of the image but that of the person who made it.

Dr. 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, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022

3 comments

  1. I read this when it first was posted, but wasn’t sure how to communicate my feelings about it. If you are a documentary photographer or a photojournalist, the truth matters. But what if you shoot in black and white, that’s not really the truth based on the reality of the scene depicted. The real life colors could perhaps be a crucial part of what is going on in the frame, yet much of photography in these genres is shot in monochrome. Truth is irrelevant to what I do as an image maker, I prefer to challenge the “truth” of perceived reality, make people reconsider what they are seeing on their screens.

      1. Funny, my zine is called “no context”. That pretty much takes care of both of those at once.

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