Philosophy Of Photography (As A Weapon): Errol Morris

More than a decade ago I was in a PhD program studying the philosophy of art, with special focus (pun intended) in the philosophy of photography. Aside from tired undercurrent of learning a lot about dead white men, and despite my quitting after just two years, it was an amazing and engaging endeavor that I wouldn’t have traded for the world.

It’s that background that makes documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’ recent piece in the New York Times titled Photography as a Weapon so fascinating to me. He wisely contends that photography is regularly used as an incredibly powerful tool of deception.

The excerpt following the jump is from Morris’ article and refers to the image above left where Colin Powell used falsely annotated photographs to effect our viewpoint (of what might otherwise have been a rather innocuous image) as a reason for war… Juxtapose that annotated image with the one on the right calling out the International House of Pancakes and you get his point. Click the ‘continue reading’ link below to get more on his simple-but-elegant take on photography as a potentially sinister weapon.

From Morris’ NYTimes piece:

…There is a larger point. I don’t know what these buildings were really used for. I don’t know whether they were used for chemical weapons at one time, and then transformed into something relatively innocuous, in order to hide the reality of what was going on from weapons inspectors. But I do know that the yellow captions influence how we see the pictures. “Chemical Munitions Bunker” is different from “Empty Warehouse” which is different from “International House of Pancakes.” The image remains the same but we see it differently.

Change the yellow labels, change the caption and you change the meaning of the photographs. You don’t need Photoshop. That’s the disturbing part. Captions do the heavy lifting as far as deception is concerned. The pictures merely provide the window-dressing. The unending series of errors engendered by falsely captioned photographs are rarely remarked on.

It may seem overly simple at first, but it begs a brilliant question about the role of images and words combining to either solidify the truth for us, twist it, or more subtly manipulating the viewer’s desire to even engage in a picture. (eg. What if the caption of the above photo read “Brittany Spears caught without her panties again”… If that were the case, you’d most certainly look more closely at the image – even if it’s just for a second – to wrap your brain around the validity of either the words or the image, neither or both..)

Thus, like Morris, I believe that, in this day and age, we’re stuck in a unique intersection of time/technology where we’re still mentally bound to thinking that images we see in the media and the world around us are “real”, yet we all know that that Photoshop exists and is widely used. It’s undoubtedly very tough waters for our public psyche navigate.

[If this is at all interesting to you – the role that captions and photo manipulation can play in our world, you must read Morris’ piece in the New York Times. Thanks to the ubiquitous Boing Boing for the tip.]

[PS. Errol Morris is amazing.]

17 Responses to Philosophy Of Photography (As A Weapon): Errol Morris

  1. 20 August 17, 2008 at 11:54 pm #

    ‘Fascinating’ without question. I beg to differ on the premise that “we’re stuck in a unique intersection of time/technology”
    Case in point : . Enter todays date : Aug 18. Up come the names and details of 10 boys – ave. 20yrs of age all killed in Vietnam. It goes on for 16 more pages. 44yrs ago US Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara used photographs of a bogus North Vietnamese attack on US gunboats in the Gulf of Tonkin to tip US opinion, and the fate of these boys, to going to Vietnam..
    And before that was Germanys Goebbels and before that ….
    and before Photoshop was the widely used Photo-retoucher……. There is nothing new under the sun-methods change but information is still power. Be it real or contrived.

  2. marc August 18, 2008 at 12:04 am #

    I think Errol Morris (because he’s Errol Morris) has been able to give us a politically updated reminder of a word/image problem that has been around since forever. Obviously there’s Plato, but also John of Damascus vs. the Byzantine iconoclasts, and of course, the surrealists come to mine (“ceci n’es pas…” an International House of Pancakes?), or more recently the post-structuralists like good old Derrida–why it’s beginning to sound like the makings for a graduate philosophy seminar! Is this making you glad you got out?

  3. Danno~ August 18, 2008 at 12:15 am #

    great read.


  4. Finn McKenty August 18, 2008 at 5:54 am #

    chase, excellent piece!

    we used to trust photographs because they were the closest thing we could get to seeing things with our own eyes, and of course we trust our own senses completely.

    but wait! it turns out we can’t even trust our senses, as the extensive research into cognitive biases tells us. it is relatively easy for two people to sense the same thing (take in the same stimulus), yet perceive different things. in other words, same input, different output.

    to me, the lesson is that we need to be more careful, critical, and rational thinkers than ever before. we know that the input we’re getting may be bogus (phony captions), and that our brains are subject to a variety of biases that impair our ability to process even the best input. the only solution is critical, rational thinking.

  5. Chase Jarvis August 18, 2008 at 8:19 am #

    excellent points here, everyone… In relation to what 20 said – I like where you’re going – no question that this has been going on in some way, shape or form since photography was invented in Paris back in the 1830’s. My point about our interesting intersection of time and place is that, contrary to way back when, and even just 15 years ago, the population at large was generally unaware of photo manipulation. In the pre computers-for-everyone era, the idea of photo retouching was outside general public knowledge, whereas now, everyone aged 5 to 75 knows the word ‘Photoshop’. This puts us in a pickle… are we seeing reality or Photoshop? I contend, as does Morris, that our gut goes instantly to ‘this is reality based imagery’ (especially when annotated) largely because 99% of human experience does NOT include photo retouching and does include a history of ‘belief’ in photography as reportage (despite our general familiarity as a culture with Adobe’s amazing software). We know Photoshop is out there, but we don’t feel ‘victim’ to it nearly as much as we perhaps ought to when making critical decisions – especially for the public at large.

    Like Finn said, increased critical thinking is now the mandate on these matters.

  6. Stuart Key August 18, 2008 at 12:47 pm #

    It seems a little sad though… if where you read ‘critical thinking’ you substitute it for ‘constant scepticism’.

    Or skepticism, depending on your position. :)

  7. Adam August 18, 2008 at 2:09 pm #

    Great topic. Thought provoking, love it. I can remember critically thinking that the photography presented by Colin Powell was suspect as a single piece of evidence, but at the end of the day, I TRUSTED Colin Powell to have more evidence that was shown, that was maybe more complicated to show on T.V. to the masses. My mistake. But doesn’t all critical thinking end in some basic trust of truth and reality in the end. It’s where you place your trust that is the rub, I think.

  8. Anonymous August 18, 2008 at 8:14 pm #

    F’n A, Chase. You’re on the money with this one. I’ve got a background in PJ and I vomit regularly at the captions I read…those meant to deceive or enhance a photo that is otherwise benign.

    Your rhetoric and understanding of art is really starting to make sense to me, now that I know your background. Philosophy of Art is about as cool as it gets… Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel. Damn.

  9. Jason Drumm August 19, 2008 at 9:58 am #

    Thanks for posting more quality than just another “How to soften skin in photoshop.” I’m gagging on the oversaturation of cheap internet how-to’s and thankful for your insightful thoughts. In short, you rock.

    In regards to this post specifically, it’s like Ansel Adams said, “Not everybody trusts paintings, but people believe photographs.”

  10. Greg August 19, 2008 at 8:11 pm #

    I can believe it… Sigmund Freuds American Nephew Edward Bernays was a propagandaist for Pres. Woodrow Wilson, then the name propaganda became a bad word so he simply changed it to counsel of Public Relations (min. 8:00)…Big corperations: Macys,etc. received his counsel on how to sell things based on want & not need. I think he came out with the idea of fashion magazines & coined the word lifestyle to appeal to different types of individuals and so hense different types of photo advertisements are done to appeal to different types of "CONSUMERS" which he in essence created…
    See it all here:
    "Century of the Self"

  11. Nathanael Gassett August 20, 2008 at 7:47 am #

    Very interesting concept to think about.
    In the end I think it all boils down to integrity. How are photographers, writers, publishers, going to portray their editorials? Truthfully? Photoshopped?
    And of course it’s not as simple as that, because we as humans will shape our perceptions based on emotional response. I think it takes some training to be able to look past yourself and how you feel about something, and document what’s really going on. To stop kidding yourself and look for the truth. But even then the ability to “capture the moment” is a flawed idea to me, because the one taking the image will always project his or her emotions/reactions. It’s personal. Not saying that there is anything wrong with this, but the moment itself isn’t captured, but the artist’s view of the moment. Art should be personal, it’s a personal thing. But are documentarian photos supposed to be art? (I’m interested in others views on this, so feel free to challenge these ideas).
    Technology is a tool, like any other. There will always be those who will use the amazing technology we have for purposes less than honorable.
    Outside of Photoshop, there are sill ways to manipulate photos in camera, or by setting the scene (I’m talking about editorial photography here). The photo “The Reichstag” by Yevgeny A. Tschaldey comes to mind. Was it taken during the event, or staged afterwards? And in the end does it matter? To me it makes a difference. I still think the photo is fantastic, but much of the drama is lost.

    Just a few thoughts on the subject.


  12. Tom Legrady August 20, 2008 at 8:22 am #

    I love the IHOP picture. Haven’t seen it before, but now I want the t-shirt.

    Re-labelling things is merely more blatant a lie, but it isn’t really different from the conflicts I felt looking at Kennedy’s photos of the supposed Cuban missiles. “They say those are XXXX, but doesn’t really look like it to me.” Or WWII aerial images: “They say those are XXXX…” At one time I went along with the authorities, since they were the ones in charge, and so clearly should be believed. However, my experience has taught me that governments exist to lie to the people. Call me cynical.

  13. Matthew August 20, 2008 at 2:34 pm #


    re: Your comment “knowing Photoshop is out there, but not feeling victim to it nearly as much as we ought to” definitely hits home with my wife of all people.

    She’s a regular subscriber to several of the Hollywood gossip mags (I know, I know, gag me with a stick). Until I started pointing out that the overwhealming percentage of these photos had been retouched (except the ones of the stars caught off gaurd in an unflattering bikini meant to look bad), she had genuiniely believed that these people really looked like that. That is, until I showed her the photoshop disasters blog, along with another great one that I can no longer remember the name, where they actually were able to obtain the original celebrity image.

    We’re creating these false images, and everyone knows Photoshop is at work, but somehow refuses to believe that their “stars” have been shopped. I know this is a bit off-topic for your particular discussion, but I thought the segway was close enough. Cheers!

  14. Rob Jaudon August 21, 2008 at 1:08 pm #


    Great read. It’s funny, Myth Busters just did a whole show that relates to this. They are trying to debunk the photos/video of mans first walk on the moon. I haven’t seen it yet but it is on the DVR waiting for me.

    Your stuff is great and keep up the good work.


    Rob Jaudon

  15. swankFoto August 22, 2008 at 8:21 am #

    Errol Morris is amazing.
    It’s good to see him popping up more and more frequently – SEED, WIRED, NYTimes,!

    Check out “Vernon, Florida” (and of course Fog Of War) – superb!

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