The truth of photographs

…the camera’s ability to transform reality into something beautiful derives from its relative weakness as a means of conveying truth.” (Sontag 1973)

The above quote by Sontag (1973) refers to the fact that the end photograph someone sees has been influenced by the photographer’s choice of composition and any alterations made to the overall work, as a result the photograph does not necessarily reflect reality but reflects a ‘beautiful’ (I’d use the word constructed) version of the subject being photographed.

This is why photojournalists need to follow a strict code of ethics to ensure they do not mislead the public with their images, the code of ethics deal with photo manipulation, privacy and how ‘graphic’ it is (Burkholder 2009). It is important to note that even if photojournalists follow these ethical rules the end picture will not portray the truth; this is because ‘the truth’ is relative and contextual. For example in the 1994 US intervention of Haiti, also known as “Operation Uphold Democracy”, there were two photographs of US troops landing in Haiti which show the situation from different perspectives. One of the photographs depict US troops on the lookout putting their training into action (image 1 below) on the other hand another photographer captured the fact that those reported images were staged (image 2 below) (Ritchin 2008).

Image 1 – © Alex Webb/Magnum
Image 2 – © Alex Webb/Magnum

We need to keep this in mind when dealing with visual media for human rights activism as the images we display could easily be misinterpreted or portray the wrong meaning. However to create humanitarian images and depict the intended gaze the creator of the image must be aware how the image will portray the subjects to the spectators. In the book “Human Rights Film Festivals: Activism in Context “ Dr.Tascón (2015) explores the role of ‘the humanitarian gaze’ in film festivals but based on how easily visual media can be manipulated. To ensure we understand the issues the media is trying to portray it’s worth thinking about what gaze is being used, regardless of if we are spectating a film festival, the news, or any other source.

An interesting topic to think about is the fact that in modern society it’s not only photojournalists or professionals who will take photographs of events, amateur footage from smart phones and cameras may also provide insight into events. As such these armature images may help provide the general public gain a more impartial, or at least a broader range of, views for significant events. An example of this is in the Occupy Wall Street movement where activists formed makeshift media teams to show the people what was going on in the protests as the mainstream US media was either ignoring or attacking the movement (Al Jazeera 2012). These teams set up live streams on the internet so that people outside the movement could find out about the movement and what was going on inside it (Al Jazeera 2012). As we know today, the early gaze some US media attempted to set up for the movement was completely wrong.

Briefly “the humanitarian gaze” is the power relationship which is set up due to people observing the image; for example, INGO’s such as Oxfam use images of sick children to set up a relationship of the viewer (powerful, can aid) to starving children (weak, helpless). While such relationships are positive in the short term they have negative consequences later, I may explore this further at another time.

Images referenced above were retrieved from

The truth of photographs references

  • Al Jazeera. 2012. ” Fault Lines – History of an occupation “. YouTube video, Posted by “Al Jazeera English”, March 21, 2012.
  • Burkholder, Carolynne. 2009. “Online Journalism Ethics” School of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison,
  • Ritchin, Fred. 2008. “After Photography” New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Sontag, Susan. 1973. “The Heroism of Vision” In “On Photography”, Page 87. New York: RosettaBooks LLC, 2005.
  • Tascón, S. M. 2015. “Human Rights Film Festivals: Activism in Context. Basingstoke” UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

This is an altered version of an assignment submitted for human rights studies.

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