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.]

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