Photography, Half-Truths and the Whole Story

glare1Photo by discarted

Columnist Ian Jack took on the ubiquity of photography in The Guardian this past weekend, and he seems to be conflicted about photography’s role in that it only provides a glimpse of the truth and not the whole story. However what he fails to note is that, without cameras, the only thing that is certain is that we get no truths, never mind half-truths.

To prove his point, Jack refers to the incident in London April 1 at the G20 Summit where police struck Ian Tomlinson from behind, causing him to slam into the ground and later die of a heart attack. The attack, seemingly out of the blue and unprovoked, was caught on film by a bystander.

Update: A second postmortem examination shows that Tomlinson died from an abdominal hemorrhage.

Jack says the details are yet to come out about what really happened, as if the fact that Tomlinson was a part of the protest would somehow justify the brutality. That  is immaterial. Regardless of what the Tomlinson did a block away or four hours before (and all accounts have said he was not a part of the melee), he was killed by a policeman who demonstrated unnecessary force, and it was caught on video. I guess Ian Jack has never heard of the expression “The tape doesn’t lie.”

More importantly, before video surfaced of the Tomlinson attack the only half-truths being told were from the Metropolitan Police (Met) when they claimed that Tomlinson died from a massive heart attack and did not have any contact with police. According to BBC reports, Tomlinson had repeated contact with Met Police before one officer caused his untimely death.

Update: The Guardian releases new photos proving Tomlinson had prior contact with police before being assaulted.

Jack also refers to the firing last week of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism chief, Bob Quick, after highly sensitive documents he was carrying were caught by photographers as he was going to a meeting at 10 Downing Street. The monumental gaffe forced officials to deploy a raid on al Qaeda suspects earlier than they had planned.

From Ian Jack:

One question arising from Quick’s case is, do people have the right not to be photographed? Or do we demand the freedom to take and publish pictures of everything and anybody all the time?

Actually people do not have the right to not be photographed – in public, at least. People only have rights in this regard where there is an expectation of privacy (in their homes, for example). Cameras may cause serious trouble, as in Quick’s case, and while I don’t agree with the publishing of something so highly sensitive, I do believe that someone that stupid shouldn’t be in a high-ranking post. 

Why are photographers to blame for one man’s stupidity – or indiscretions or abusive behavior – while in public? If Quick was dumb enough to carry sensitive materials that were visible to all, then is he really smart enough to lead the country’s campaign against terrorism? Maybe the photographers have actually helped national security by forcing Quick’s resignation (and indirectly, I must say, because I think the photographers’ objective there was to get a shot of  only Quick and not sensitive documents).

It’s also important to know that Steve Back, the photographer who snapped the controversial image, did warn the government that photographers could clearly see sensitive documents when officials entered 10 Downing Street.

Jack continues, arguing the following:

In the old days all that would have happened was a D-Notice and the confiscation of several rolls of film. 

FYI, Ian: Photos aren’t beamed up to cyberspace directly from photojournalists’ cameras. Photographers first have to connect their memory cards to their computers, download/transfer the files, and then once they are finished doing that, they can send the images via email, ftp, or upload them directly to the web. So in this case, and according to Jack’s claim, a simple D-Notice, which is actually called a DA-Notice, could have been issued and memory cards, not rolls of film, could have been confiscated.

However, the DA-Notice says nothing about the legal confiscation of personal property; it concerns only the publication of sensitive material dealing with national security issues. More importantly, the DA-Notice is only a voluntary code that provides guidance to the British media; a DA-Notice request is not legally enforceable. Therefore, news agencies are ultimately left to decide whether or not they should publish information related to national security issues.

That is why some news agencies published Quick holding sensitive documents uncensored, and others decided to blur the document, black out only parts of it, or enlarge it for easier viewing. So was there a time when policemen illegally confiscated photographers’ rolls of film under the D-Notice? If so, it appears that Ian Jack is in support of this troubling, and illegal, procedure.

When Jack brings up the infamous Eddie Adams shot of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting Nguyen Van Lem point blank, it really is a quite a leap. Jack seems to be relying solely on Adams’ belief that photographs only contain half-truths rather than formulating his own opinion. Instead of backing up this claim with his own explanation, he simply regurgitates an Adams’ quote and states the following:

 An even bigger argument, devolving from writers such as Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, concerns our predisposition to think of photography as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It isn’t

Rather than simply accepting the fact that Loan shot Lem in the head in public, it appears Jack would rather focus on the what if’s, the unknowns and the half-truths to support and justify the behavior of  Loan, or the officer that attacked and killed Tomlinson. It’s as though he is desperately trying to grasp something outside of the image that will somehow justify what Loan and the officer who attacked Tomlinson did.

While Adams indeed may have felt guilty about bringing Loan notoriety that followed him through his life, the General did assume the role of judge, jury and executioner – killing someone in cold blood– so it’s hard to feel sympathy that the shot affected his life. Would we as a society feel sympathy for a cop who executed a man in public if that man was suspected of killing several policeman earlier that day? No, we would not stand for it. We have laws and the law enforcers must obey those laws and follow the rules governed by our society and judicial system. Maybe the trouble Loan faced in life after he killed Lem was karma coming back to haunt him for violently killing an unarmed man in public. Maybe the same will happen to the officer who killed Ian Tomlinson.

Finally, the headline and subhed for Jack’s piece, “The Unstoppable Rise of the Citizen Cameraman: They Are Powerful But One Thing Photographs and Video Can Never Do is Give Us the Full Picture,” appears to claim that we can only uncover more truth – truth that will presumably exonerate the perpetrator, as opposed to uncovering more untruths and lies that were promulgated for self-protection.

Would Jack have the audacity to make this same claim about the images and footage that came out of the Civil Rights movement? Would he say that, in the case of photos showing black Americans being hosed, beaten, arrested and killed, that perhaps we weren’t getting the whole story? That maybe before the photos were taken those people had the nerve to sit at a lunch counter or march down the street? Does this image contain half-truths, Mr. Jack?

picture-3 Photo by Bill Hudson,  July 15, 1963

Did you ever think that the video of Ian Tomlinson is showing as much truth as it possibly can, and is leaving out the half-truths and lies that were said in order to protect the police? If there wasn’t any video of Tomlinson’s beating then we would all have to accept the police’s version of what happened to this man – which we now know was a lie. Mr. Jack, wouldn’t you also like to know why the police officer who attacked Tomlinson was wearing a black mask underneath his helmet that concealed his identity? 

The truth is, in case after case,  cameras are catching illicit activity and bad behavior. Hell, we caught  our own parking enforcement officer abusing her authority by parking in a loading zone on her lunch break. Perhaps as we move toward a society without large omnipresent newspapers in every city, we will rely more and more on citizen journalists to serve an essential role in our system of checks and balances.

Times are a changing indeed. For some, like this reporter who was caught snoozing at a city meeting and a rival reporter posted it to YouTube, the democratization of information dessimentation sucks. For others, like this man who was killed in an Oakland transit station, justice will be served. The fact is pictures and video tell a story, and unlike what Ian Jack is claiming, often expose the truth, warts and all, and that may be something abusive police officers and careless government officials will just have to get used to.

I guess we’ll all need to be on our best behavior from now on – because it’s photographs and video and audio recordings that will ultimately allow the whole truth to emerge.

Article via The Guardian

2 Responses to “Photography, Half-Truths and the Whole Story”

  1. 1 Browne April 16, 2009 at 7:47 am

    I think photojournalism and written journalism are equally important, while the photos have often completed stories sometimes they tell only half of the stories.

    The Civil Rights was helped owing to photos, but the rights of Latinos and African-Americans have also been very harmed owing to photos. Photojournalist that come from narrow slices of life that only take photos of black and brown people getting arrested or getting shot. Photos of only certain sections of neighborhoods that tell the story that the photographer has in his or her head.

    As a writer and photographer you have to know your biases. You have to be ethical and know that sometimes a good shot, isn’t a good shot if your point is to make the world better.

    A photo can lie, but words can lie too. Photographs can’t lie any better than words, but of course since people more quickly absorb a photo than words a photojournalist has to be sure they are getting the complete story. A photographer has to think more than a writer and think more quickly.

    On my blog I write about public transit. I get photos of drivers doing all kinds of crazy shit, but I don’t publish them, because to me it would implying the problem of the system is owing only to the driver and I know that. I understand that the average person isn’t going to get that a photo of a driver leaving his bus idle to get a whopper isn’t the root cause of horrible transit in LA. The root cause is mismanagement and odd priorities, like paying a big huge defense company to implement a fare system that hurts passengers but lines rich guy’s pockets.

    I think that’s the problem with photographs is in the little stuff, not big protests, but the little stuff. Working “little” people only see other working “little” people and showing certain things and only those certain things can end up perpetrating lies and half truths if you aren’t sure to balance it out with other sides of the coin or words.


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