Now you see it, now you don’t
An analysis of well-known photos finds that the manipulated images can lead the way to different truths
Errol Morris is the kind of guy who would fly off to the Crimea to settle a dispute over two lines of an obscure stray comment in one of Susan Sontag’s books. He is also the kind of guy who would correct his tour guide on a point of geography in a place he’s never been - and prove himself right. In his films “The Thin Blue Line,’’ “Mr. Death,’’ and “The Fog of War,’’ in which he is often present as judge and inquisitor, Morris is a sort of tour guide himself, demonstrating time and again the limitations of knowledge and the dangers of intellectual cocksureness.
Now Morris, following in the footsteps of Geoff Dyer and, yes, Sontag, has set himself the task of resolving one of the thorniest conundrums in the history of photography - scratch that . . . the history of human thought: What is truth? Preferring a deep approach to a shallower but wider one, Morris studies a small handful of well-known photographs, intending to prove that “[w]hat we see is not independent of our beliefs. Photographs provide evidence, but no shortcut to reality. It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around.’’ “Believing Is Seeing,’’ which began its life as a series of articles for The New York Times, is delightfully conversational - at times literally so, as when Morris reprints the transcripts of his discussions with various photographic experts, academics, and eccentrics, transmuting the slippery, intellectually curious, playful tone of his films into his written work.
Morris begins at the beginning, with a photograph considered by many to be “the first iconic photograph of war’’: Roger Fenton’s 1855 image of a cannonball-covered road, taken during the Crimean War. But the matter immediately grows more complicated, for there are not one, but two versions of this photo: one with the cannonballs littering the road, and the other with them seemingly gathered in a ditch, and the road clear of impediments. Sontag and others casually assert that Fenton staged the former photograph, scattering the cannonballs for effect.
Morris wonders how Sontag could have known, preferring to take the two images and subject them to rigorous scientific testing. He eventually solves the problem of which photo came first in ingenious fashion, but not before questioning the entire notion of photographic fakery: “Couldn’t you argue that every photograph is posed because every photograph excludes something?’’ Morris is hardly done with taking the author of “On Photography’’ to task, wondering about the very roots of her inquiry. “And even if Sontag is right, namely, that Fenton moved the cannonballs to telegraph the horrors of war, what’s so bad about that? Why does moralizing about ‘posing’ take precedence - moral precedence - over moralizing about the carnage of war? Is purism of the photography police blinding them to the human tragedy the cannonballs represent?’’
This question, on the relation of photography and the horrors it depicts, hangs over the remainder of “Believing Is Seeing,’’ which examines images from the Crimean War, the Civil War, the Depression, and two of the more infamous photos of the past decade: the “Hooded Man’’ of Abu Ghraib, posed atop a rickety wooden box, with a black hood over his head, and Specialist Sabrina Harman kneeling next to a dead Iraqi prisoner, smiling broadly and giving the camera a thumbs-up. Morris, director of “Standard Operating Procedure,’’ a film about Abu Ghraib, is well-versed in the nightmarish routine of abuse and degradation that Americans visited on Iraqi prisoners there. Using digital stamping and some old-fashioned sleuthing, Morris unpacks the order of events that led to those iconic photos, seeing Harman’s in particular as drastically misunderstood: “The photograph misdirects us. The public sees the photograph and assumes that Sabrina is the killer and directs their anger at Sabrina, rather than at the real killers.’’
The use of Harman’s first name should be indication alone that Morris’s sympathies - and his desire to overturn misbegotten assumptions, prodded by the supposed truthfulness of photography - have led him somewhat astray here. All theorizing about the genuineness of Harman’s smile aside, and whatever her ultimate motivations may have been in photographing an Iraqi corpse, we are repulsed by this particular image because it bespeaks the moral vacuum of Abu Ghraib, one so strong that it allowed this young woman to grin next to a man who had been murdered only a few hours before. Sometimes, photography does not lie.
“Believing Is Seeing’’ is a treatise on the doctoring of photographs, but it sidesteps the freighted question of realism in favor of a more nuanced understanding of the knowledge photography can share with us. “Are the bloggers saying that there were no children killed or injured in these bombing attacks?’’ Morris asks of an iconic shot of a Mickey Mouse toy strewn amid the rubble of a housing complex in Lebanon during the 2006 Israeli attacks on the country. “Is that the claim? Or is it only that I don’t like this image because it telegraphs political ideas that I disagree with or that I find offensive?’’ Photographs are truthful insofar as we believe what we see: Do we trust the photographer not to have tampered with reality? Moreover, do we share the inferences the photograph makes about the world it depicts? As Morris reminds us, every picture is only a window onto a landscape whose boundaries always exceed the frame of the camera.
Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.