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Depth of Field:  The philosophical musings of a photographer

A tug-of-war exists between the idea that a photograph is a presentation of truth and a presentation of half-truths. This clash of thought can be seen in the climate of our current Instagram, reality-TV based culture. We know that what we are viewing has been edited but we often choose to believe in it as a complete truth. The creators of the cartoon, “South Park,” illustrated this concept very well in the episode, “The Hobbit.” In the show Wendy goes on a crusade against the use of Photoshop. She believes its use promotes poor body image and an unrealistic view of female beauty. She also believes that Photoshop was the cause for her classmate, Lisa Berger, to be turned down for a date because she is not considered as beautiful as Kim Kardashian, a reality-TV star with a storied history with altered images. Wendy then edits a photo of Lisa as a means to demonstrate how much and how easily a photo can be altered with a computer program. But her illustration is posted to social media and her message is twisted. Much to Wendy’s dismay other girls of her class take to Photoshop to edit their own images.

When the boys of South Park are presented with these altered images they become infatuated with the altered images that make the girls appear ‘more beautiful’ and ‘more desirable’ to such an extreme that they are almost unrecognizable. These images are of girls that the boys have seen everyday, that they have know for years. The girls and their true appearance are physically present to the boys but the boys choose to believe in the photographs on their phone. The girls also begin to believe in the altered images. A new reality has been created. So much so that even Stan, Wendy’s boyfriend, asks her to provide him with an altered image of herself so that he won’t be left out of the experience. She eventually succumbs to the peer pressure, creating and posting her own altered portrait.

We live in a world of half-truths, shadows on the wall. We know the truth exists as we know the light outside the cave exists but we choose to remain in the cave. We want to believe that these ideals of beauty, excitement and power exist in this world. We live between the idea of actual truth and what we want to be true. We’d rather have the half-truths than struggle to see the light. The idea of ultimate truth scares and intimidates us. There are times when it is easier to accept a photograph as complete truth without searching for more.

But the question still remains, can a photograph represent truth? Not completely. The time and space boundaries of the photograph prevent the whole truth from ever being captured within its borders. Some information must always be left out and what is left may be altered. We need to always remind ourselves in this ever growing social world based on the photograph that we are only looking at a single moment stolen from time, a presentation of what the photographer wants us to see, a presentation of a partial-truth. We must look beyond the borders of a photograph for the whole truth and use our intelligence to search for it. We must be mindful that we are still chained inside a cave of shadows and half-truths.

The only way a photograph can be completely true is for it to have never been taken in the first place, for it to have never gone through the process of translation from light and shadow. If the day comes when we do break free of our bonds and travel to the light, we will not need photographs. We will not need anything to transform the light into a language we can understand. For if we do accomplish this, the light will be inside of us. We won’t need translations, we will already know and we will already understand.

Until that time, we as photographers and as viewers have a responsibility to exercise discipline in the creation of and interaction with the photographic image. There will always be some modicum of truth within every photograph. It is that truth we must recognize and use to guide our perceptions of the physical world in which we live. And it is that truth we must use to set ourselves free to seek the light beyond.

We further justify our expectations because of the original aura that surrounded photography’s initial beginnings. This was a technology unlike anything that had been witnessed before and its unique ability to capture the world with such incredible realism created a belief in the photograph’s ability to speak truth. A faith was thus invested in this medium that had never been given to any other medium. When a painter paints a portrait of a person we say that he has captured the ‘likeness’ of that person but with a photograph, we see the image in the photograph as the person.

As Hubert Damisch says in his essay, “Five Notes for a Phenomenology Of the Photographic Image,”

Theoretically speaking, photography is nothing other

than a process of recording, a technique of inscribing,

in an emulsion of silver salts, a stable image generated

by a ray of light. [1]

The words Damisch uses to describe the action of photography are ‘recording’ and ‘inscribing’. These words bring with them a connotation of verity. There’s a weight behind them that coupled with how the photograph has been used continues the perception of truthfulness.

Photographs are a part of our everyday existence. Their use spans many modes of communication including journalistic and documentary mediums as well as evidence within the judicial system. Put alongside a newspaper article or commissioned as a documentary project a photograph substantiates the information we are being provided. Investigators use images to corroborate stories or provide data in judicial proceedings. Sontag writes,

Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear

about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown

a photograph of it. [2]

We take photographs provided to us in these manners at face-value. “It is evidence therefore it must be true.”


[1] Damisch, Hubert. “Five Notes for a Phenomenology Of the Photographic Image” Classic Essays on Photography. Ed. Alan Trachtenberg. New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980.

[2] Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.

As human beings we are solitary. Our minds do not connect with one another. We cannot know what another is thinking. And yet despite our design, we desire to communicate. And so we create languages by which we can communicate objects and ideas. Photography has become the modern world’s main visual language.

We justify our expectations of photographic truth based on our concept of reality. Unlike a written language, in photography the photographer cannot control all aspects of his creation. The writer pieces together words within a structure. The painters of the Renaissance created their compositions based on the visual language of their stories and symbols of their paintings. The language of the photographer however, is physical reality. We read photographs differently than other mediums as Price describes,

A picture is seen first as a whole and then analyzed in

any order of parts, unlike the sentence in which each word

has a place, in which the order of words may have meaning,

and in which every part is related to a whole statement

unintelligible until the sentence is completed. [1]

Reality is not something any one of us can easily control. In the realm of the art photograph reality may be manipulated to speak a certain way but in the realm of the documentary photograph such manipulation is seen as fake. Sontag noted that,

A fake photograph (one which has been retouched

or tampered with, or whose caption is false) falsifies

reality. [2]

If a photographer wants to try and communicate truth, he must let reality be and the language of reality can be extremely powerful. It speaks to us in ways that the written language or the symbolic language of painting cannot. For what we see must have occurred in some form. Sontag further notes,

A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that

a given thing happened. The picture may distort, but

there is always a presumption that something exists, or

did, exist, which is like what’s in the picture. [3]


[1] Price, Mary. The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

[2] Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.

[3] Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.

The Reading List

  • Understanding a Photograph, by John Berger

  • Towards a Philosophy of Photography, by Vilém Flusser

  • The Photograph:  A Strange, Confined Space, by Mary Price

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