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december 2008

Photo truths


by Hans Durrer
Next Left: "In front of a nightclub," one of Jeff Wall's large-scale photographs on display at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; 2006 © Jeff Wall

December 2007, Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco: On one of the walls hangs an enormous photograph by Jeff Wall. It shows young people, fashionably dressed, on a city street, waiting to get into a disco. The scene is not reminiscent of life in the streets of San Francisco (or of any other city in the world), the scene is reminiscent of TV-pictures: it depicts the reality in the minds of movie directors, it has not much to do with real life in which people rarely look like the ones in TV-series.

  The photo (not least because of its extraordinary format) fascinated me, attracted me. I liked it in the way that I like the sundaes from McDonalds — 100% artificial, guaranteed no natural ingredients added. At the same time it irritated me, it put me off. I did not want to like it for this wasn't really photography the way I understood it (to document what one encounters). This had more to do with film, or with the theatre, or with painting actually. The other images in the exhibition also appeared as if Wall had photographed the pictures inside his head.
  Wall's probably most famous photo "Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986)" was made with actors in the studio and photographed in individual sections that were later assembled digitally. On a stony slope one can see dead and wounded soldiers, scattered weapons, and pools of blood. Susan Sontag (2003) referred to this image as the "opposite of a document." Since we essentially label photographs as documents — we want them to serve as evidence, as proof, as memorabilia — one can thus safely ask whether pictures such as "Dead Troops Talk" should actually be considered photographs.
  Well, a camera was used, a trigger was pulled, a photo was made. And, anyway: lots of photos are staged for the camera. Still photographs at movie sets, for instance, or family shots, or portraits, or the photo ops of political leaders, or many documentary photographs. Why then this unease? Because I expect photos to show me the world as the photographer found it; I do not expect them to show me the photographer's fantasy world. Needless to say, the imagined reality and the real one out there are intertwined but photographers who approach the physical world with the idea of a "decisive moment" (Cartier-Bresson) in which the best pictures are taken will often come back with images that differ considerably from the ones that were done by someone who deem their work in the darkroom, or at the computer more important. In other words: attitude matters.
Next We do not want photographs to be fakes; we expect them to not deceive us, we want them to be real, and we want them to be true.
  We do of course know that sometimes they are not and that they often do not show us the way things really are. This does not mean that we accept to be lied to — though it happens anyway. Remember George Bush, Jr, on Thanksgiving 2003, when, with the American troops in Iraq, he was showing off a plastic turkey to the cameras? Or, more recently, at the Olympic Games in Beijing where — courtesy of the political leadership — a nice looking young girl was moving her lips for the cameras — she looked the part but couldn't sing — while the voice of another, less beautiful girl could be heard?
  The problem here is that, a few months or years from now, we will (if we knew it at all) have forgotten this contextual information and that only the images will stay with us. "Image outlives fact," the photographer Lisa Kahane pointed out. Propagandists know this, we should too.
Next Right: "Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986)," on display in Tate Modern, London; 1992 © Jeff Wall

Our longing for the truth, and nothing but the truth, is limited. Most of the photos published after the terror attacks in Madrid on 11 March 2004 were doctored, severed limbs, for instance, were removed. We do not mind such manipulation, in fact, we approve of it. Sure, photos in newspapers should reflect reality but, hey, they should not interfere with breakfast.

  Nowadays we cannot tell whether the photos that we take for images of reality do in fact depict reality. Nobody can, and that includes photo editors. We need to be able to trust the photographers or photo editors to deliver what they promise to deliver. Good reasons to trust them we do not have, on the contrary, for in times in which maximising profits is the widely accepted guiding principle, budget concerns will override everything else. And why send a photographer to Africa when there is Photoshop?
Next What we want from photographs is one thing, what they can deliver however quite another. Documentary photography and press photography are based on the implicit promise that whatever the photo shows is real and is true and has not been (essentially) tampered with. The openly constructed photography — the one of Jeff Wall, for instance — on the other hand makes clear that the photo was designed, shaped and formed. It thus suggests that the idea that photos can reflect reality is an illusion. And, indeed, an illusion it is. Quite contrary to our wishes and needs, reality — the one that we perceive as imagined as well as the one that we conceive of as real — is elusive and unrepresentable. It is, as Heracleitus famously said, in constant flux — and to represent this flux is simply impossible.
  But what, if not representing the staged or the found world, are photographs doing then? They create the illusion of something fixed, they bestow footing and orientation on us, they give form and expression to our longing for eternity, they help us to feel less lost in this world. And, they pretend that something that is not alive anymore still is.
  No wonder that we hold them so dear.
  • Sontag, Susan (2003), Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  2008 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes