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The dangers and glories of manipulating reality

By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers

July 18, 2006

Normally, I'd be writing about the dangerous, quickly-expanding conflict between Israel and its neighbors -- both sides apparently spoiling for a final reckoning -- that easily could provide the spark for a full-scale war in the region, and beyond.

(As should have been expected, the clueless Bush Administration is doing nothing to stop the slaughter, indeed chooses to look the other way as Israel totally over-reacts to a bad decision by Hezbollah.)

But I'm holding off for three reasons: 1) The blogosphere is inundated with commentary that covers the ground well, including the likelihood of a spreading Middle East conflict involving Syria and Iran, in addition to the ongoing disaster that is Bush's war in Iraq. 2) I've written much in recent months about the Israel/Palestine mutual-destruction society. 3) Things are happening so fast in that Middle East cauldron that by the time my piece appears, large sections of it could be out of date. (The dangers of writing a once-a-week column.)

Instead this week, I want to talk about photography: both the political implications of its new technology and as a metaphor for the discovery of truth.


For the past several years, to help balance out my obsession with words, I have been dabbling with visual images; recently, I joined a digital-photography group.

What I've discovered is that there are at least two schools of thought about the visual images captured by digital photography.

Many photographers look upon the photos they've taken as having an integrity all their own. They feel this way regardless of whatever trickery they may have employed in the taking of the photograph. The image they got is the image they want viewers to see.

Other digital photographers view the photo taken as merely the starting point for manipulation, mostly through Photoshop, to turn the image into something quite different -- adding to, subtracting from, filtering the visual that was captured by the camera.

Please don't misunderstand me here. I'm not trying to suggest that there is one way, and one way only, of taking and printing photographs. One method is not more "right" than the other.


I don't want to get caught up in the debate about whether photographs really do capture the "truth" or are, by their very nature, "lies." Several photographer-friends quite openly admit that photography has been "distorting" reality from its very inception in the 19th century. Examples: Just by selecting how to light and frame a shot, entire contexts are missing, which can totally alter how the image is interpreted. As can how a print is cropped, developed and printed. So complaining about how manipulating shots in Photoshop is unethical "distorting" -- we're way past that dated argument.

The point I am trying to make here is a larger social, almost metaphysical, one.

Let me get at it this way: As we human beings become more isolated from each other and more separated from direct experience, and thus are forced to rely on information-dispensers to explain much of the world in which we navigate, it is imperative that accurate assessments of reality be available.

More and more citizens have come to understand that they can't always count on accuracy of information from the institutions that underpin our society: church, state, financial institutions, mass-media, etc. Institutions and individuals seem to have agendas all their own -- sometimes economic, sometimes political, sometimes personal -- and lies are told often. In short, It becomes more and more difficult to obtain an accurate assessment of reality that we can really trust.


(Of course, it's possible to live life divorced from realistic assessments, as many of our political and social and religious leaders do, but not knowing how the world is really working can be, and often is, extremely dangerous, as one easily can wind up in blind alleys teeming with mayhem and destruction. Ask George Bush and his friends.)

But most of us do feel fairly confident in believing what we see with our own eyes. Cameras are extensions of our eyes, ergo, despite editing inside the camera or playing around with cropping and printing, we can more or less trust photographs to accurately capture reality. At least that has been the general way photos have been viewed for more than 150 years.

True, there have been notorious examples of photos being used for nefarious ends, often in cropping out unwanted images; Sen. Joe McCarthy did that and got caught out, and Stalin was notorious for making officials "disappear" in state photographs. But, by and large, what the camera captured was accepted as some fairly reliable approximation of truth.

But now that digital cameras and Photoshop permit, indeed encourage, everyone to shoot and manipulate realistic images, putting one's trust in photographs becomes a "quaint" concept for many.

Some photographers have taken to putting signs up at their exhibitions alerting viewers that "no artificial manipulations" have been used.


But those kind of notices are rare. What we're growing used to as citizens, especially younger ones who've been raised with new technology, is not to fully trust photographs. And thus another aid in determining the contours of reality is removed.

This is all happening so fast that it's unclear how this distrust of the photographic image is impacting our psyches. But surely it is bound to play a significant role in making us all feel a little more at the mercy of information-dispensors who may be manipulating not only visual images but us as well. Newspapers and TV news broadcasts, many beholden to official policymakers, often skew coverage by the visuals they present, how they present them, and, in particularly, what they choose not to present.

And, since so many information-providers are now owned by a few massive corporations, the ability to define reality is in fewer and fewer hands, which situation never has been good for democratic societies, even while technology is making information-dispensing more accessible to the masses.

(Those of us who work in dispensing information on the internet feel empowered by our ability to reach large numbers of readers, but by and large our websites rarely can match the viewership of network and cable TV, for instance; in addition, equitable access to the internet is also being controlled by fewer and fewer hands, who are devising ways of directing folks to certain sites and away from others. Further, there are attempts to close off access to controversial sites -- gambling, adult porn, etc. -- which gets the government's nose under the censorship tent; in the near-future, access may be denied to sites for so-called "national security" reasons, and you know how elastic that term can be in the hands of an autocratic administration, especially the one in control of the White House these days.


On the other side of the equation, the democratizing of information-dispensing can provide an important corrective to "official" versions of events. In addition to internet writers, I'm also referring to cell-phones that take photographs. Often during civil emergencies -- such as the bombing of subways in London -- pictures are instantaneously snapped on those cell phones and sent out to the world, giving us a citizen-based view of what's happening divorced from editors and governmental approval; the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq forced its way into the national-media slipstream only when digital and cell-phone photos of the tortures were distributed all over the internet.

(Of course, the flip side of this new cell-phone technology is the ability to capture the perhaps-embarrassing image of individuals without their approval or knowledge and send it out on the internet within seconds, to their eternal humiliation.)

I have no answers here as to the positive and negative questions raised by the growing popularity of all this new photographic technology in particular, and information-dispensing technology in general. But it's worth our while to take some time to ponder the implications, good and bad and ugly, on our social fabric.

Who knows? As I delve deeper into digital-photography, and learn more about how to use Photoshop, my attitudes may shift drastically away from my "old-style" emphasis on the visual integrity of captured images and go more in the direction of the aesthetic glories, and downright fun, one can have, by manipulating photographs on the computer. But even if I do move in that direction, the larger social issues still will have to be confronted and dealt with.

As you can probably tell, I am a novice in these fields of photography and new-technology social ethics, so I'm wide open to hearing from those who have been thinking about and working in this area for years. "There's something happening here/What it is ain't exactly clear" -- maybe we all can help in dispersing the fog.


Copyright 2006, by Bernard Weiner


Bernard Weiner, a poet and playwright, has taught at Western Washington University and San Francisco State and San Diego State Universities in California, worked as an arts critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently is co-editor of The Crisis Papers.

Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances