Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Limits of the Myth of Photographic Truth

Speaking via TED Talks, Jonathon Klein addresses the notion of the myth of photographic truth.

Put most simply, the myth of photographic truth infers that photographs -- noted to be worth a thousand words, and to provide an objective depication of reality -- are created through a variety of subjective processes, and thus do not really infer unquestionable truth.

Those who argue against this mytho of photographic truth note that the photographer makes myriad decisions in the course of taking -- or, as Klein notes, making -- a photograph. They choose the angle from which they will take the photograph, the lens with which they will take it, the time at which they will take it, and most importantly when they will take it.

Moreover, they argue that photographs have very specific meanings to people, and not everyone shares those meanings.

But, as Klein points out, there are some cases in which photographs capture an undeniable truth, and thus can be key to changing the world in crucial ways.

Consider, for example, the following photograph:
This photo should require no introduction. It's a picture of the protester who, at Tiananmen Square in 1989, stopped a column of tanks sent to quash the student protests there.

As the tanks rolled toward the Square, this brave man -- whose fate is ultimately unknown -- stops the column of tanks by standing in their path, and refusing to move. As video shows, when the tanks moved to roll around him, the man moves in front of them -- again stopping them in their tracks.

This photo serves as an undeniable reminder to anyone who views it of how the Chinese state handles political dissent: by deploying army tanks against unarmed students.

Photographic truth is indeed rarer than we give it credit for. But contrary to what those who dispute its existence insist, it does indeed exist.

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