Does photography lie?

Most photographers will edit their photos before publishing them. Post-processing can go from minimal touch-ups to crazy manipulations that take the finished photo very far from the original scene.

“So what?” some will say. Photography does not need to represent states of fact. Photography is creative. It is supposed to tell a story, to create an emotion, to shake you and make you think and see things differently. Not to capture what you saw through the viewfinder.

That is mostly true. But it doesn’t mean that photography cannot lie.

It can lie in different ways, and examples are plentiful in social media, on blogs and websites.

One obvious way of lying is by going overboard with post-processing. There is no hard and fast rule on how much is too much. But a trained eye can easily detect photos that have been tortured in Lightroom or Photoshop. The end results looks unnatural, sometimes to the point of caricature.

Another way it can lie is by pretending to represent something it does not. A landscape, an amazing moment on the street, an epic sunrise. The claim that it represents something out there, something uniquely captured by you, creates a responsibility. If your claim is proven false, you cannot invoke creativity. It’s common practice to indicate if your photo is artwork / collage rather than (creative) representation.

A third way of lying, and maybe the worst of them, is to build a fake story around the photo. To pretend that it took special efforts and risks to take it, or that the persons involved in it were going through some sort of dramatic experience that you were able to capture. You’re not lying about the scene, but you build a fake emotional halo around the scene.

Robert Capa – Death of a Loyalist Militiaman (1936). One of the most iconic photos of the Spanish Civil War. More recent evidence suggests that the photo was staged.

These forms of lying, and others I may have missed, are not innocent. They are made to elicit an emotional response, to get attention, likes, approval, admiration. Even when they pretend to support a good cause, such as raising awareness of other people are going through, they betray it by not being truthful. Worthy causes do not need staged or faked photos. They need the extra effort needed to actually go there, put in the time, energy and mental strength to document the problem, and then present it to the world.

Ultimately, what makes it so ugly to lie as a photographer is not that you’re mostly doing it to get an admiration you don’t deserve. It’s that it somehow you are betraying what photography can (and should) be – a way of breaking through the web of lies that make up a big part of our private and social lives.

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