An Exploration of Truth, Part 5

The viewer can also play an active role in the interpretation of a photograph’s meaning. Despite the information being provided inside and outside a photograph’s frame, the photographer cannot fully control the viewer’s interpretation of the visual space. Just as a photographer’s history and role in society play a part in the taking of the photograph so does the viewer’s history and role play a part in the perception of the image. More than one celebrity has faced the situation of posting what they thought to be an innocent photo of family or an event in their life only to be criticized for their parenting, or body shamed or ridiculed.

The photographer, however, does have technical control over the image he presents. Berger argues that, “There is no transforming in photography.” He believes that, “The only decision [the photographer] can take is as regards the moment he chooses to isolate.” [1] But almost since its advent the power to transform has been a part of a photograph’s creation. In “On Photography,” Susan Sontag accounts,


A decade after Fox Talbot’s negative-positive

process had begun replacing the daguerreotype (the

first practical photographic process) in the mid-1840’s,

a German photographer invented the first technique

for retouching the negative. His two versions of the

same portrait—one retouched, the other not

—astounded crowds at the Exposition Universelle held

in Paris in 1855 (the second world fair, and the first with

a photography exhibit). The news that the camera could

lie made getting photographed much more popular. [2]


In the environment of the darkroom the photographer has the ability to use the techniques of dodging, burning and masking to enhance or decrease the visibility of details caught by the camera. These physical manipulations are similar to the alterations that can be found in the digital realm. We can increase the saturation of colors or enhance the contrast of light and shadow. We can airbrush out imperfections and add additional filters to achieve the final look we want. Therefore, sunsets become more vibrant, models become thinner and life takes on the hue of the ideal.

There is no better example of the photographer’s ability to control the interpretation of the truth he is trying to present than social media, Instagram in particular. We currently exist in a society that lives or dies by a person’s ability to ‘capture the gram,’ whether or not that ‘gram’ actually reflects reality. We edit our lives to the choicest moments, what we believe to be the most beautiful, the most provoking, the ones with the most viral potential. We have been molded to believe that our true realities are boring and unfit, or in some cases simple wrong. So we alter our photographs in the hope of altering our reality.

A photograph then cannot be taken as a whole truth. It is instead a detail, a partial truth. It lends itself to an understanding of the light beyond the cave but it can never bring us into the light itself. But if the photograph is such an unreliable means of representing truth, why then do we persist in its use? Why do we accept the images we see as representative as something true?


[1] Berger, John. Understanding a Photograph. New York: Aperture Foundation, 2013

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

© 2020 Mary M Jones

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