An Exploration of Truth, Part 6

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.

© 2020 Mary M Jones

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