Behold! Robbers have stolen the Furman bell tower. This is a photograph. A representation of real life. It’s truth! What, you don’t believe me? You should. Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright’s Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture explains that “throughout its history, photography has always been associated with realism.” As I discussed in my last post, though, it’s possible to change the meanings of photographs simply by cropping out information. Sturken and Cartwright also allude to this, saying that choices made by the photographer “are invisible to the user.” In a sense, anything existing outside of the frame might as well not exist.
These days, how can we know what’s true anymore? Any image can be
shopped enhanced using Adobe® Photoshop® software, and thus we must take what we see with a grain of salt. One example used in Practices of Looking is a mugshot of OJ Simpson when he was accused of murder. Time magazine and Newsweek magazine both had access to the photo, but Time darkened it artificially to make Simpson appear more threatening. Be aware when looking at images, they may not be what you think they are!
Bringing your ideology to the table
You can’t really mention photographs without mentioning the cultural values which people knowingly or unknowingly carry with them when looking at ’em. Someone’s ideology, or “set of ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations, and actions” is very important in influencing one’s perception of an image. For example, the moon landing image I have above. Conspiracists would say “Ha! I knew the moon landing was faked!” about this image, while the rest of us would probably just say “meh, another crazy conspiracy.” Pictures of George Washington might be universally recognized here in America as an icon of patriotism and freedom, but his face might be less well known in other countries, or he might be known as “that guy on the American dollar.”
Sturken and Cartwright present several images, including the protests at Tienanmen Square, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe poster, and a mother and child during the Great Depression to highlight different icons, or “an image that refers to something outside of its individual components, something (or someone) that has great symbolic meaning for many people.” Icons are thought to be universal, but our perception of them is always colored by our ideologies.
Overall, when looking at an image, you need to be aware of the fact that both you and the photographer are defining its meaning. Photographs don’t necessarily imply truth, and even true photos can be taken out of context or have their meaning changed through cropping. Entirely false photos can be generated and can still look believable too. Watch out!