Photography as Evidence

Since its invention, photography has been used as evidence. Is this still the case ? How do you see the role of photography as evidence changing ?

The question of photography as evidence is so large that it might more easily be apprehended as a set of separate, though related, questions. First of all, there is the question of time; though barely 160 years old, photography went through a great amount of technical and popular developments, and as such is different today from what it was at its birth. Secondly, there is the picture itself: are we to consider the way it was interpreted by its contemporaries, or are we to assess the validity of the evidence in a picture out of its context ? In this essay, we shall attempt to provide an overview of both of these cases, as both have influence in evaluating the role of photography as evidence. Moreover, we outline the development of both these cases over a period of time, with particular reference to the capacity of photojournalism to provide evidence. We shall see how the two cases are related, and conclude with an appraisal of the role of photography of evidence today.

W.H. Fox-Talbot, who invented the photographic process in England in 1839, considers that photography "contains nothing but the touches of nature's pencil". It is certainly true that photography was invented as a means to accurately represent existing scenes. Several devices had been in existence to help painters achieve such realistic reproduction, such as the camera obscura or the camera lucida; it is even alleged that Fox-Talbot's invention of the process was due to his poor draughtsmanship, that even when assisted by such aides as a camera obscura his reproductions were so poor he attempted to fix what he saw on paper without any manual interference .

Upon its spreading, photography was seen as the accurate representation of the truth. The likeness of the subject and the photograph was so great that at first, the two became assimilated; there are reports of a group of nuns in France who put "little pictures of the heart of Jesus" in their soup and ate them every week. Although this confusion was soon cleared, the photograph still remained a representative of its subject: "the very shadow of the person lying there, fixed forever!". As such, a photograph was equated with the truth; it seemed photography "could not lie". Many pictures in the early days of photography revealed to man a truth he had not even suspected existed: countries he had not seen, or monuments he did not know of. More prosaically, the camera had the power to undo some of Nature's optical illusions, as in Edward Muybridge's study of the motion of a galloping horse. The fact that the horse was shown to never have its four feet off the ground simultaneously showed that its motion had been misrepresented throughout the existence of painting. This caused such disbelief that the pictures had to be verified by a "scientific committee" at each stage of their development before being accepted as truthful. Thus science verified what the eye could see and, to quote

Whilst the photograph might have been seen by the viewer as the accurate representation of the truth, it is more difficult to assess how far the photographer took the picture as such. Because a photograph is in essence the capture of a fleeting moment, one could argue that it de facto cannot be an accurate representation of its subject; any picture of the same person taken a few seconds apart will convince one of this, as the different expressions on the subject's face are likely to convey rather different impressions of the subject. Photographers became aware of this from a very early stage: an early recorded instance of this is a conversation between Abraham Lincoln and his photographer Matthew Brady in 1860. Brady asked Lincoln if he could raise his collar a little; Lincoln asked Brady if this was to shorten his neck, to which Brady agreed. This shows an early understanding of the power of the photograph; the context was the 1860 US election campaign, and as the poor state of communications at the time limited direct contact with the candidates, photographs played a great part in establishing their popularity. As such, a lot of effort was put into making Lincoln look better than he actually did, which included careful studio work and photographic retouching. Lincoln is later quoted to have said that "Brady and the Cooper Institute [where he held one of his most famous speeches] made me President".

This can be seen as manipulation of the truth by the photographer. It was, however, no more manipulative of the appearance of the sitter than was portraiture in painting; the difference was that unlike in painting, the likeness between the subject and his representation was such that the viewer equated one with the other. This conferred with obvious power to influence the viewer, insofar that the viewer believed what he saw on paper was an accurate representation of the truth.

This type of manipulation was present in most forms of photography from an early stage, including journalistic photography. Alexander Gardner, earlier Brady's assistant, took a large amount of photographs of battlefields during the American Civil War of 1861-65; however, he frequently arranged the positioning of the bodies in the picture, to heighten the drama of the war, and changing the information in the captions to make sure no-one noticed the forgery. Harper's Weekly wrote of some of those prints that "of course it is impossible for photography to lie, and we may regard these portraitures as faithful to the minutest detail". Similarly, photographs of the San Juan Hill battle in the Spanish-American war of 1898 were reportedly taken from a re-creation in a bathtub.

A famous such occurrence of retouching in World War 2 was the picture of St.Paul's cathedral, "standing up gloriously out of the flames and smoke of surrounding buildings". Whilst the substance of the picture itself was not fabricated, what have been regarded as its "most compelling details" were only recently discovered to be additions by photographic retouchers. Another famous incidence is the publication of the famous picture of Lee Harvey Oswald holding a rifle and communist literature shortly after J. F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. The picture was published by three newspapers, the New York Times, Newsweek and Life. However, all three publications had retouched the picture differently to accent different aspects of the photograph, prompting subsequent apologies from the newspapers' editors.

Thus, it can be seen that throughout photography's history, there have been numerous instances of manipulation of photographs that are both famous and accepted at the time as truthful. Nevertheless, the advent of digital imaging in the early 1980s prompted fears in photographic circles that photography was going to become more and more dishonest. These fear have been prompted by several famous cases: the first, and one of the most widespread, was a picture published on the cover of the National Geographic in 1982. The picture depicted a group of Bedouins passing the pyramids of Gysa; however, the horizontal format of the original pictures was not suitable for the newspaper's vertical layout and so, to make it fit on the page, one of the pyramids was moved electronically into the field of vision. A Newsweek shoot in 1989 about the movie "Rainman" carried a picture of Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman together, smiling at the camera. However, although the picture shows both men leaning together and a single picture credit, the two men were actually shot separately in different locations, with the same lighting and with a stand-in for the other. They were then put together using computer imagery. Similarly, Rolling Stone in 1985 removed a gun holster from one of its cover stars to reduce "violent content".

What is striking about these images is not only the retouching itself, but also the pictures the retouches were carried out on. Of course, the low cost and high quality of digital retouching was what prompted its use in these cases. However, whilst such forms of manipulation might have been seen as acceptable in other forms of photography, such as advertising or fashion, the images concerned here are essentially illustrative, news or feature pictures. Because there is no obvious commercial force behind them, they are naturally considered to be closer representations of the truth than advertising pictures. To introduce the notion of photography as a language, they have connotations of veracity; and this is why the digital manipulation seems so scandalous, because its invisibility to the naked eye allows it to surreptitiously modify the information in the photograph whilst still convincing the viewer that what he is seeing is an accurate representation of reality. For this reason, it is true that digital imagery can be seen as further compromising the validity of photography as evidence.

Therefor, we have seen that with digital imaging, photography can be manipulated unnoticeably; as such it is possible to question its validity as evidence. However, the fact that photography's claim to providing an accurate representation of reality may be compromised does not necessarily tell us it is viewed as such. The next section of this essay will thus focus on the role of photography in society, and the extent to which it is perceived by the viewer as a source of evidence.

The photographic image became disposable with the invention of half-toning in the late 19th century; this was the process enabled pictures to be printed in newspapers. Shortly after followed the establishing of the first photograph-based periodicals, such as Life and Look in the US, Picture Post in the UK and Paris-Match in France. This commodification of photography was bound to change the way photography was perceived; mechanical reproduction leading to what Walter Benjamin called the "de-magification" of art. But let us consider this in terms of the way photography is seen as evidence.

The concept of the commodification of the image has provided footing for numerous postmodern thinkers to assess its role within society. Let us consider a quote from Guy Debord's "La Societe du Spectacle":

"Images detached from every aspect of life merge together in a common stream [...]. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation". This passage illustrates the brunt of his theory, which is basically the society has come to exist as a representation of itself. This representation is made through images; and such is the role of photography, to present the world with images of itself with which it can identify, but with which it cannot be assimilated. Basically, Debord sees the image as the medium through which society filters itself, through which it can look at itself without seeing its own entirety; as such, the image becomes the antithesis of truth, and the validity of the image as evidence is definitively nullified.

Jean Baudrillard has gone even further in his analysis of the image as substitute to reality: according to him, "real objects are wiped out by news- not merely alienated, but abolished". What Baudrillard probably means by this passage is that the reality or not of an object becomes insignificant, quite simply because that object only exists through its image. An object exists solely through its representation, through the way we see it to be through still or moving images; thus, the reality of the object itself, what it really looks, smells and feels like, is insignificant because we never experience it. Images are virtual; and because the virtual is what puts end to all negativity, these images possess no negative; hence all reference to reality is wiped out.

Thus, Baudrillard's interpretation of the image is similar in essence to Debord's in that he separates the image from its subject. Both see the image as an object which is entirely distinct from its subject, possessing none of the connotations associated with its subject, and leading an almost individual existence. Thus, the image itself takes on a life and meaning of its own, and new connotations can be applied to the image itself as opposed to what it is representing. In this sense, the image is not truthful anymore, and the image cannot be satisfactory evidence, since it has become clear that the reality of the image and the reality it represents are two different things.

It has to be noted, though, that both these theories are a part of a greater context of thought on the part of their authors, which there is little space here to detail, and as such must not be taken out of that context. Nevertheless, it is interesting to consider the question of what connotations that can be attached to the image as object. This can be done by examining the impact of photography in general on the viewer.

With the omnipresence of photography, the viewer is subjected to many different kinds of photography: art, fashion, news or advertising photography. All of these types of images convey a range of different applications, but all through the same medium. Before digital imaging, this may not have mattered so much because the way each different type of photography came across was different: retouching was usually relatively obvious, and so it was easy to recognise. So, there was no mistaking an advertising image for a news photograph, because the style in which they were taken were all so different.

With digital imaging however, this is not the case anymore: the perfection with which retouching can be carried out makes it more difficult to recognise, and the methods of creation of a news photograph become similar to that of a fashion image. However, the news photograph purports to tell the truth, whilst the fashion image aims to create a fantasy. The question can also be posed as such. Basically, the viewer today is confronted with realistic imagery in advertising or fashion which he knows to be an inaccurate representation of reality. He is thus placed in a context in which he is aware of the existence and the prominence of digital manipulation in photography. Given the omnipresence of imagery leaving little room to judgement, and given the similarity in style of the different photographic genres, what is there to make him believe that the same techniques are not used in news photography, or in other forms of photography that purport to represent the truth ? Thus, the connotations of the different genres of photography are confused, and the news photograph loses what had once made it more believable than a fashion image. As such, we can reach the same conclusion through a different route: the advent of digital manipulation in the context of the commodification of the image could lead to the loss of distinction between different types of photography, and the image one again loses its relation to reality. Thus, the validity of the image as evidence is compromised.

To conclude, it can thus be said that the role of photography as evidence is changing insofar it is gradually losing validity as such. The transformations of the photographic image throughout its history have lead it to be seen as truth itself at its infancy, to a perhaps less accurate reflection of it nowadays. This is not, however necessarily cause for alarmism; whilst it might mean that we put less trust in what we seen, it also means that we are likely to change the way we look at photography. For photography to be rid of its role as representative of reality, also means that it will be able to inspire a supplementary level of interpretation in its reading. As a result, photography might definitively put an end to the argument that opposed it to painting in its claims to be equally considered an art form; the fact that photography might be moving away from the portrayal of reality might simultaneously allow it to move on to a different level of representation.


Ritchin, Fred "In Our Own Image" (Aperture, NY:1990)

Goldberg, Vicki "The Power of Photography" (Abbeville, NY:1991)

Baudrillard, Jean "The Illusion of the End" (Polity, Cambridge: 1994)

Debord, Guy "La Societe du Spectacle" (Zone Books, NY: 1994)

Stater, Brian "How a wartime camera lied about St Paul's", from

Lane, Mark "Testimony at the JFK Hearings", from

The Daily Mail newspaper, Tuesday 31 December 1940 Edition, from

Benjamin, Walter "The Work of Art in the Ear of Mechanical Reproduction", quoted from

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