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Photography is generally taken as being an impartial truth. It is seen as having an inherent objectivity, as being a thing of documentary record. Photographs are used to settle legal disputes, rebut false claims and to prove or disprove rumours and theories.
But photography is not truth. It is only ever a partial truth, one taken from a single perspective. Even without retouching, a photograph can lie by omission and selection.
Disregarding photo manipulation, reworking and recomposing, all of which are now so much easier than ever before, let us consider photography’s truth. For what follows image photography only at its purest; the capture of a single, still image through a lens, a moment frozen in time through light radiation, chemical reactions and electronic impulses.
Consider this photo, Falling Soldier by Robert Capa. It is popularly believed to be the first time a death in war was captured on a camera. In all probability, this is not true. Deaths were filmed before this point. It may not even be a death, it may only be the beginning of a slow agonising struggle the man, Federico Borrell Garcia, is destined to lose. The photo alone does not tell us. But the story goes that it is the first death on camera and most of us accept it.
“The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda.”
Of course, Capa could simply have faked his Falling Soldier, as very many of varying degrees of credibility have alleged. Nonetheless, it is an image we are all familiar with, and therefore worth exploring. Most, if not all of us have the same instinctive reading of it. This is part of the reason the photo is so powerful. So, let us suppose the photo is to some extent factual and not staged.
From our low vantage point we imagine a terrified man feeing for his life and about to jump down into the safety of the foxhole where we, the camera, his comrades shelter. But just as he reaches the lip of safety the bullet strikes and his escape is never to be successful.
Now imagine if the angle were different. Imagine if we saw him from a full-front position. At the bottom of the image is a rifle’s barrel pointing straight at him. He is charging at us and trying to kill us. The shot that hits his head saves us. He is our enemy.
Conversely, if we saw him from behind, he is still our enemy, This time however, we, or one of our comrades, has shot him in the back as he flees.
Assuming he is indeed fleeing, and we are viewing the action from the most truthful angle (if such a concept were even possible), how do we know who shot him? Up to this point we have only considered how the image’s angle may not be telling the whole story. But there is much more that the photo does not tell us.
We cannot see the direction he is running, nor can we even see where it takes place. We do not know the time of day,nor week, month or year. We have no idea of his previous actions, or those of any around him. The soldier floats alone in an indefinite narrative space. We cannot even describe what exactly has befallen him. We see the bullet glance his temple and blood spatter, but it does not come directly from behind. How do we know he was not shot by a comrade?
Originally it was widely thought that the plume from the man’s head was blood spattering. This throws a harsh light across one of photography’s limitations – the quality of reproduction. The original reproductions were in poor quality newsprint and pre-digital lithography.
The peculiar shape is in fact a tassel on his cap. This is clear on seeing a large clear print from the negative. In anything less than the clearest print, the eye is fooled into imagining blood spraying from a bullet strike. In fact, there is no blood visible at all in the photo. Although the viewer makes up their mind as to what they perceive, the truth of what is seen is not absolute.
It would even be possible to read the photo in a most ridiculous manner. A child seeing the photo, for example, may see a man throwing himself backwards in abandon, discarding his weapon.
In short, we come away from the photo poorly equipped to make an objective assessment, but having seen enough human trauma to have a subjective comprehension.
So, semiotically the picture is unclear, as much as any other. We only see what our experience teaches us to see. We see what we understand on a compassionate, human level. This may not be the signal that ought to be denoted.
So how do we know which of these stories is true? The photo does not tell, the photographer did. When it was submitted for use, Capa would have submitted an explanatory caption also, exactly because the image alone has no one, single and identifiable truth.
Robert Capa’s image sets the standard for discussions of photographic truth and the documentary merits of lens-captured imagery. Part of this stems from the suggestion it was faked, although the conversations on photography’s objectivity generally proceed on an tacit acceptance of the image’s reportage integrity. The image is primarily chosen for its serendipitous capture of a fact we are all faced with – our mortality. It is a matter we all must consider and as such it is an image that no-one can fail to connect with at some level.
Capa liked to see this fact differently, “The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda.”
Capa was a storyteller, even referred to by his most zealous promoters as having been a sometime fabricator of images, staging events to service a story. In fact, Robert Capa did not even exist. He was invented. Eventually Endre Friedmann would become the story he had come up with. Friedmann and his girlfriend Gerda Pohorylle created a more marketable identity to appeal to picture editors and commissioners of photography.
None of this should detract from the fact that Capa was a bona fide great, straddling the divide between reportage and art. He was a genius possessed of unsurpassed ability to tell a whole story through a single image, a moment frozen in time, to explore what it means to be human.
Ethical Martini suggests Capa faked it
Wikipedia’s discussion of the photo
Slightly Out of Focus, Robert Capa, Modern Library, 2001 Edition
Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection, Phaidon, 2001
About Looking, John Berger, Bloomsbury, 1980
Nobel Lecture by Harold Pinter on Truth in Art
The Truth Claim, a discussion on photography
Truth in photography forms a major part of Susan Sontag’s writings
PBS on Capa
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