The Summary of the Myth of Photographic Truth Essay

It has been my intention here to try to come to grips with an understanding of truth in documentary film that is compatible with our experience as human beings in a world full of contradictions. At the heart of the issues presented here has been the concept of navigating through contradiction by adhering to the middle ground, that path which flows between the tensions that force our minds to reconcile them. I have suggested that while truth might best be understood as a mental process, I have also argued that without the texts that must be read there would be nothing for the mind to process. To that extent it would seem that the text should not be abandoned as the site of the truth that the documentary film seeks to expose. Rather it is our understanding of documentary truth as being dependent upon notions of the photograph’s indexicality that needs to be altered. Having provided some examples of how the concept of indexicality might be updated in the age of digital image manipulation, it has been shown that the idea of the correspondences that exist between representation, reality, and our perception of both might serve best as the bearer of documentary truth. As a text, a film can play the intermediary role that anchors the search for correspondences within it. Thus I suggest that truth can lie within a given text based on the tensions put forth by that text. The various tensions created by filmic texts in relation to considerations of technology, aesthetics, and the dichotomies between fiction/documentary and reality/representation have formed the framework of this discussion. Hopefully my navigation through this framework has resulted in an understanding of how an alternate definition of documentary truth is necessary in today’s world. As Umberto Eco might suggest, however, my text here may well have an agenda all its own, well outside of my control…

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Outside these debates, in our everyday experience of visual culture,we continue to invest in the belief that photography presents a reliable andtruthful account of the world. We expect images of products displayed byonline stores to relate to the items for sale, and tend to believe in the imagemore than the textual description. The item for sale on e-bay, without anaccompanying photograph, is assumed to be in dreadful condition, no matterhow enthusiastically its virtues are listed by the seller.

On Notions of Truth in Photography: ..

The field of photojournalism is most vulnerable to doubts aboutphotography's relationship to reality. For many the most important roleof the camera has been its ability to 'bear witness' to the major eventsof history. Photojournalism certainly seems less prestigious today than inits heyday from the 1930s to the 1960s, when magazines such as Life andVu were dedicated to the narration of current events through the picturestory. However, the decline in photojournalism has less to do with doubtsabout photographic truth, than with the emergence of new media andforums for the circulation of news images. Many of the images of the recent'Arab Spring' revolts were taken by protestors and ordinary citizens, whothen circulated the images on the Internet. Such developments offer thepossibility of more democratic documentary practices. In the past thefigure of the photojournalist or documentary photographer suggested aheroic figure (by virtue of both skill and bravery) who occupied a superiorposition relative to his/her subjects, often presented as passive victims ofevents. Digital technologies seem to offer the possibility that such victims ofcircumstance can achieve agency through recording their own trauma.

The truth is that digital manipulation can be dated back to the invention of photography.
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The notion of documentary truth might be best understood as that truth which is found in the way that we mentally organize our perceptions. Increasingly the theoretical understanding of documentary film is moving away from the notion of an inherent reality found within a film text and more towards an understanding of how texts are read. However, I believe that the idea of defining documentary as a receptive strategy should not negate a consideration of the filmic text as primary focus of consideration. At the heart of the matter lies the concept of truth. As we move away from believing that truth in imagery is a function of the image’s indexical relationship with its subject, there seems to be a thrust towards understanding truth as being that which defines our world for us: perception. What I will explore here is a wide array of discussions that surround the definition of documentary truth in film and the place of the text within that definition. Through a look at the parallels between the filmmaking process and the mind’s processing of external stimuli, the collision of documentary and fictional space within single texts, the changing relationship we have with the photographic image resulting from new digital technologies, and the time honoured debate surrounding the notions of author, text, and reader as encapsulated by Umberto Eco, I will suggest an alternate understanding of how film can contain truth for our extraction. Through an extension of the principles behind persistence of vision, truth might be understood as that which lies in the gaps between the perceivables that we fill in with the stuff of thought.

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With humans, fights often occur for the same reason: two individuals both wanting the same thing for themselves. If we metaphorically apply it to the situation discussed in this essay, photographers or photography enthusiasts often enter into a conflict regarding reality because they both believe they describe reality in their work. However, their work looks radically different, although they both photographed the same subject. In this situation, who is right? Who can claim to represent reality? Clearly, it must be one or the other but not both.

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Bringing a conclusion to this essay is difficult. On the one hand, there is a lot more to say on the subject. On the other hand, some may argue that such an essay should never be written. The first position is correct the second one is incorrect. There is a lot more to be said on this subject, and this essay does need to be written because finding the proper answer to these questions is very difficult. As I said at the beginning, if you are a photographer and you show your work to other people, regardless of whether you sell your work or not, you will be asked these questions. If you haven’t yet, you eventually will. It is only a matter of time. As the popular statement goes: it is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when.