By John Camp
Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) by Errol Morris (Penguin Press*, 2011)
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This is possibly the most astonishing photography book I’ve ever read, and in a number of different ways. If you are particularly interested in looking at good photos, however, this may not be the book for you, because it does not contain many good photos.
Most of the photos it does contain are reproduced as small images, and the reproduction quality is not high. Those few that are large have gutters running through them. Most of the originals are not very good, either. One, a Walker Evans, is arguably great—but what you are shown, large, is a severe crop...with a gutter running through it.
Regular readers of TOP are probably somewhat familiar with Morris, whose work has been discussed here before.
Inspired by two sentences in a Susan Sontag book, Morris set off to investigate whether or not the British photographer Roger Fenton staged a photograph he took during the Crimean War (1853–56.) His conclusion is complicated, and I won’t get too deeply into it here.
Suffice to say that in contemporary terms, Fenton most likely staged a photograph—but that neither he nor his contemporary audience would have thought so. He produced a photograph that reflected a particular situation, but he had to move a bunch of cannonballs to do that. He was so innocent of our contemporary attitude that he took two photos of the same scene, a few hours apart, one showing cannonballs and one not, and displayed and published both of them.
Our contemporary view is somewhat different, as a longtime, award-winning Sacramento Bee photographer found out a few days ago. He was fired because he manipulated a photograph of one bird trying to take a frog away from another bird.
I suspect Fenton would have been appalled. Accuracy, he might have argued, is one thing. “Truth” is something else.
So is human charity, which is pretty goddamn short in the newspaper business if you ask me.
As interesting as the Fenton investigation is, it was, for me, the least interesting of Morris’s investigative essays. And, I would add, his investigative technique, for a photo geek like myself, is nearly as interesting as the content of the essays. But not quite as interesting.
The four sections of this book are entitled “Crimean War Essay (Intentions of the Photographer),” “Abu Ghraib Essays (Photographs Reveal and Conceal),” “Photography and Reality (Captioning, Propaganda, and Fraud),” and “Civil War (Photography and Memory).”
Morris really likes parentheses.
Of the latter two essays, the first discusses whether or not Walker Evans manipulated the contents inside a sharecropper’s house to conform to his fairly developed sense of aesthetics; this was hard to decide, and the best we can come up with is, “He may have.”** This essay then meanders into the question of whether or not the FSA photos taken during the Depression functioned as documentation or propaganda, and winds up with an investigation of photos taken during the Israeli-Lebanese war, published by the Reuters news service.
The other essay is about a photograph found grasped in the hand of an unidentifiable dead soldier after the battle of Gettsyburg during the American Civil War. The photo was of three children, and may have been the last thing the dying soldier saw. The photo sparked a nationwide search for the soldier’s wife and children, based on a close investigation of the photo’s content by newspapers all over the country. The search was successful, and the wife and children were found. An interesting and astonishing story, given the media limitations of the time (the photo had to be described, rather than reprinted, in the newspapers.)
But the investigation that really blew my socks off was into the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse photos from the war in Iraq. The first section of this is entitled, “Will the Real Hooded Man Stand Up?”
In the West, the most famous symbol of the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison was a photo of a man standing on a box with a pointed hood covering his head, and with electric wires running under a poncho-like garment that he was wearing.
The New York Times ran a front-page story about the hooded man, with a large photo of the man holding a photo of himself standing on the box, with the hood, etc. The headline said, “Symbol of Abu Ghraib Seeks to Spare Others His Nightmare.”
Well, guess what? It ain’t that man under there.
Though he even had the photo printed on his business card, the guy in the hood was somebody else. The proof? Right there in the hooded-man photo: his hand. The man The Times did the story about was in the prison, may have been tortured, but was known as “The Claw” for a mangled hand he suffered when an antique rifle exploded during a wedding party some years earlier. The hooded man’s hands, which were plainly visible, were not mangled.
In fact, to this day, nobody knows who the hooded man was, or if he’s still alive.
Even more interesting, though, was Morris’ investigation of a photo taken of a pretty blond American soldier, Sabrina Harman, who worked at the prison. In a photo that Morris says is much more famous in the Middle East, Harman is shown bending over a dead man, flashing a big smile at the camera and giving a “thumbs up.”
The photo absolutely convicts Harman of...what?
That’s what catches Morris’ interest. He investigates in depth, and among other things (not all of which he discovered himself), he finds that Harman was not amused or happy about the dead man, and that she deliberately took photos so that might have been used in evidence for a murder, when nobody else would do that. They were, he said, evidentiary photos, not photos taken for amusement.
He reproduces letters that Harman wrote to her “wife”—Harman is gay—in which she essentially condemns the Army and the way the prison was run. “We might be under investigation. I’m not sure, there’s talk about it. Yes, they do beat the prisoners up and I’ve written this to you before. I just don’t think it’s right and never have. That’s why I take the pictures—to prove the stories I tell people. No one would ever believe the shit that goes on. No one. The dead guy didn’t bother me, even took a picture with him doing the thumbs-up.” A bit later in the letter, “If I want to keep taking pictures of those events—I even have short films—I have to fake a smile every time.”
Of course, much of what Harman wrote could be seen as self-serving, produced by a woman who saw trouble on the horizon.
But, in Morris’ investigation (he always takes things to extremes) he contacted a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California who was an expert on facial expressions.
The psychologist, Paul Ekman, says Harman was showing a “Say cheese smile” which has nothing to do with pleasure or enjoyment. It is a very specific expression, which he says is well-known to experts. It’s essentially a forced smile, aimed specifically at cameras, and says nothing about the thoughts or feelings of the person behind it. In other words, whatever Harman felt, she wasn’t showing pleasure when the picture was snapped—a photo which led directly to a New York Post headline that said, “The ghoul next door was jail abuse fotog.”
And so on. You really have to read the essay to get the full impact of Morris’ investigation, but one thing is clear—the CIA or some similar black agency committed a murder in the prison, and got away with it, mostly by convicting a bunch of bottom-end soldiers (who were, indeed, guilty of abuse) and convincing the world that justice had been done.
If you believe Morris, it hadn’t been—not even close.
And I believe Morris.
What I’ve just written is a sample of a fascinating book (for those fascinated by such things, anyway.) Believing Is Seeing contains much more, including, somewhat to my pleasure, what I see as proof that Reuters knowingly distributes anti-Israeli propaganda photography.
And the book demonstrates clearly that much too often, “believing is seeing,” but shouldn’t be.
*I write books published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, which is owned by Penguin.
**In a conversation I had Thursday with the well-known photojournalist David Burnett, he quoted Arnold Newman as saying, “Five percent of photography is inspiration, 95 percent is moving furniture.” I thought I might steal this quote in discussing the Walker Evans essay (Evans may have moved furniture) but decided I wanted to get the exact wording of what Newman said. When I looked online, I found that not only was Newman cited, but so were several other photographers—and several photographers made the same quip in direct interviews, and were credited with it by the writers....
John Camp is a bestselling book author who writes thrillers under the nom de plume John Sandford. He was formerly a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by MM: "I appreciate this review and don't want to sidetrack talk about Morris's book, but (with regard to the Sacramento Bee incident) I'm curious how many photographs the reviewer thinks an experienced photojournalist should be allowed to doctor at the expense of his employer's credibility before he gets a pink slip. Two photos? Three? Would it be cynical for the newspaper to assume that the time the photographer was caught was not the only time he had ever submitted a doctored photo, or to assume that if he hadn't been caught he might have done it again?
"As Morris makes clear, notions of 'truth' in photography are elusive at best; that ambiguity is inherent in any representational medium. But let's be honest: most sentient adults are aware that every photo is at best only a representation of 'the thing itself'—in fact, even a small child knows that a photograph of an ice-cream cone is not the same as the ice-cream cone itself. From firsthand experience (their own snapshots) members of the general public know that photos are cropped, and are taken from only one of many possible angles, and that timing and lens choice and other decisions are all highly subjective. That knowledge is part of the public's 'photographic literacy,' the set of mental tools that citizens of the developed world rely on for reading photographs. They are tools every sighted member of the general public has honed from viewing literally millions of photographs (hundreds of photographs a day, in all kinds of contexts, for thousands of days).
"But those tools cannot be used by viewers to 'read' a photograph when a photograph that looks undoctored and is presented as undoctored is in fact doctored (and while the definition of 'undoctored' varies greatly, I've never heard one that allowed for this example). A deliberate attempt by a photojournalist to portray a scene that the camera did not record falls into a different category than 'general ambiguity of the medium,' it seems to me. The fact that every photograph can have multiple interpretations does not relieve news providers of their obligation to leave reportage photos undoctored so that readers might have a fighting chance of reasonably interpreting those photos.
"The Sacramento Bee's punishment (dismissal of the photographer) may seem harsh to those who have not worked in journalism, but every photojournalist knows the rules going in and is reminded of them constantly (John Camp tried his hand at photojournalism, didn't he?). Newspapers in the Internet age have no unique commodity to offer besides public trust, the loss of which would put them out of business entirely. That's why reader trust is a precious asset of which newspapers must be as protective as possible—charity be damned. Call me naive, but given a choice I'll read the newspapers that have a zero-tolerance policy on the doctoring of reportage photos, thank you very much."