Saturday, January 17, 2004

Lying to tell the truth

Look at the pictures, and then read the essay.

Najjal's pictures fascinate me. I have his Metropolis images on my desktop. I went back to his site and was waylaid by these images. I ignored the caption -- "truth in crisis? about the influence of digital technologies on documentary photography" was just too worthy to be paid any attention to -- and started looking. I eventually realized something "was wrong", which then led me to the article.

The notion that one has to tell lies in order to tell the truth is at the heart of fiction. In this case, though, we have a documentary project that's upfront about its falsifications. We are too quick to draw a bright line between fiction and non-fiction; who's to say that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalistic frauds weren't giving us something more truthful in their lies than their more worthy colleagues did with "truth"? Edmund Morris was disparaged for the fictional device in his biography of Ronald Reagan; it turned out to be the only biography that I've finished in ten years. I felt I learned something I wouldn't've done otherwise.

Documentary photography that seduces the truth is not new. It has been argued (I can't remember where) that some of Roger Fenton's Crimean war photos were staged or otherwise "misleading". For example, apparently the cannon balls that litter "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" came from a supply wagon that rolled over, not a heavy bombardment. The implication of many dead bodies, killed by the balls and now removed, is a "false" one.

It's best to let Najjar speak for himself:
"Cuba is not just any country, it is the last existing socialist tropical paradise, anachronistic, absurd, dadaistic and surrealistic. The system´s logic is that there is no logic at all. A country far from any rational comprehension. ... But how to get the Cuban reality into a picture?

"We must not forget that the interpretation of a picture takes place in our heads. The meaning of what we see is never what we see but what it means to us. Pictures are not to concretize reality but to interpret. That is why the question is not about whether or not it is legitimate to manipulate documentary photos but how.

"However, a picture that, on first sight, seems to be without contradiction in its appearance and content, yet contradicts the viewer's knowledge and experience after having taken a closer look, is a challenge to both the photographer and the viewer. The message he gets first seems to be true and he believes what he sees. However, then he has to think about his first impression and he obtains new information different from the first and seeming truth. He finally comes to the conclusion that, "It can´t possibly have been that way.

"Which was exactly my impression during my journey through Cuba. It can`t possibly have been that way. But it has been that way..."

No comments: