“Photography as a Weapon”

Another thoughtful essay by Errol Morris:

…But doctored photographs are the least of our worries. If you want to trick someone with a photograph, there are lots of easy ways to do it. You don’t need Photoshop. You don’t need sophisticated digital photo-manipulation. You don’t need a computer. All you need to do is change the caption.

Worth reading in full (and shorter than his previous essays on photography).

(A related post of mine is here.)

7 thoughts on ““Photography as a Weapon””

  1. Looking at a picture is like viewing the world through one of the card board tubes that holds a role of paper towels. One see only a tiny slice of the environment. We rely on the people who took the photograph to inform us off the view around the little disk we can see. We call this information the “context”. Practically, we absorb the context from the verbal information that accompanies the picture.

    Pictures can lie accidentally. The standards for scientific photography are incredible. Every facet of taking a photograph must be identical for two pictures to be comparable. The same lighting, the same camera, the same lenses, the same film. Usually, this also means the same identical objects i.e. the same light bulb the same individual camera and lenses and the same role of film. The film had to be developed at the same time in the same lab. Two pictures taken with different instruments or from different angles do not represent the same information from a scientific perspective.

    I do have a complaint about Morris’ typification of Powell’s presentation. Powell didn’t just label some random pictures. Rather, he said we had intercepted radio traffic directing Iraqi units to go to certain locations and remove all evidence of chemical weapons. When they took reconnaissance photos of those areas they found Iraqi units carrying out some kind of odd construction work consistent with someone trying to hide chemical weapons. Indeed, when the area was examined after the liberation, it was found that a layer of earth around the buildings had been removed and replaced just as the photo’s had suggested. The photos didn’t prove anything with the context of the other intelligence. With the context, they did mean something.

    I suppose since it was the NY Times, Morris had to take a stab at Powell.

  2. I agree re Powell. However, I don’t think this point affects Morris’s argument.

    Your cardboard-tube metaphor is good. The gist of Morris’s argument is that not only is it easy to lie with images by using bogus captions — equivalent to telling the viewer that the tube is pointed in a different direction than it actually is — but also (the main point) that images have such a powerful effect on people as to override mere verbal explanations of events. I think he is entirely correct on this point. Motion pictures are the most highly politicized information medium because it is so easy to lie with them, or at least to explain events in ways the story teller favors.

  3. One of my favorite examples of the power of images comes from the Vietnam war.

    Virtually every vietnam veteran, including capitulation advocates like John Kerry, can tell horrible stories of the campaign of terror waged against the people of South Vietnam by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. They routinely murdered children in front of their parents to force compliance with their wishes. Yet, virtually no images of these atrocities ever saw the light of day and there are none we could call “iconographic” of the war itself.

    Because the Democratic forces were accompanied by independent reporters, every act of destruction by those forces was broadcast to the entire world. By contrast, the totalitarian forces controlled all information and never showed the results of their handiwork.

    People responded emotionally to the scenes of destruction wrought by the forces of Democracy but they had no countervailing emotional input from the other side. As a result, they felt intuitively that fighting mass murdering totalitarians was worse than just letting them take over.

    Imagine what would have happened if we televised the images of Ho Chi Min killing an estimated 165,000 people after the fall of South Vietnam or we televised Pol Pot killing 1.5-2 million (1 in 5 or 7) Cambodians. What if we could access iconic images of those democides as readily as we do those of the holocaust?

    Would contemporary Leftist have been so quick to repeat the entire affair in Iraq? I can’t imagine they would.

    Pictures profoundly affect our decision making because ultimately, we decide based on emotion and pictures affect our emotions more than our reason. A picture of a burned child running from a village impacts us more than Kerry’s verbal description of (IIRC) a child with half her skull chopped off.

  4. Sometimes we are lucky and the murderers document their work. The Nazis left a huge photographic archive, and Allied forces made photos and films of the death camps they liberated, so we remember the Holocaust. Even the Khmer Rouge left an extensive visual record by photographing many of their victims. But the Nazis and Khmer Rouge were defeated in war. The Chinese and Soviet communists who perpetrated the biggest mass-murders in history remained in control of their societies, and either made few images of their victims and death camps or retained tight control over any images they did make. Consequently many people today don’t even know that Stalin and Mao killed tens of millions.

  5. Jon, about those archived secret NKVD chronicles – I recently discovered dissident site that, frankly, doubt will be allowed to exist much longer. Most of its materials is in Russian, some – in English. Like the one placed at the top right corner of this page: photo/video evidence of public executions in USSR, up until 1940’s.

    I’ll translate the extended caption:
    This is a closed, shut down, secret topic. Public executions were widely practiced during collectivization, civil war and in the 40’s. Among big cities which residents were witnessing these acts of medieval savagery was Leningrad [second important city of USSR – TE].Executions were taking place on Kalinin Square, next to the movie theater Gigant. Rope trusses with loop on each end had been stretched across adjacent streets. Then a truck with fold-down sides, carrying one prisoner each, would pull down next to it; the verdict would be read aloud for public to hear, executioner would put one loop on prisoner’s neck, and the truck then would pull off, chocking the prisoner.
    Archived film by NKVD”

  6. Thanks. That is quite a site. It is possible to get a good sense of its content by running it through Google’s translater.

    BTW, the site appears to be hosted in the USA.

  7. Yes they do (to my surprise – on the other hand – not so surprising) – and their postal address is in Florida!
    Here’s a page in English, but it doesn’t contain links to all the materials available in Russian.

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