At the heart of photography as a medium is a fundamental problem: every photograph is a lie. This slippery instability is often what makes it effective as a tool for communication, but it can also create problems for some of the world’s most respected photographers, including Steve McCurry and, more recently, fine art photographer Tom Hunter.
Photography is a dishonest medium, presenting the impression of truth but only ever offering a representation of it. Like truth itself, our understanding and acceptance of it exist along an inconsistent scale, never black and white, and often contradictory. As Jamie Windsor explored in a recent video, as photographers we choose what to include and what to leave out, making subjective choices in what can seem to be an objective medium. The complications can go much deeper. For example, what happens if a photograph relies on fiction’s ability to convey a greater sense of truth than the truth itself?
Tim O’Brien, a renowned Vietnam War fiction author, often recounts in gripping detail the summer he was drafted by the U.S Army. He describes spending months working a brutally gory job in a meat-packing plant before fleeing to the Canadian border where, on the point of escaping the war, he had an encounter that prompted him to turn back and go to Vietnam. The tale is one of hacking pigs apart, of dreaming about blood and animal entrails, of the anguish at leaving his family behind, of the prospect of being branded a coward, and of a life-changing meeting with a man who allowed him to confront his fear and turn back.
After recounting this emotional story, O’Brien then reveals that none of it is true and that his summer leading up to being drafted was spent playing golf. However, a summer of golf did not convey what he experienced, and nor did it communicate the visceral fear of flying to a different country to kill people, and potentially be killed. For O’Brien, fiction does a far better job of communicating what he went through — a more accurate representation of what he experienced than what actually happened.
More Real Than Real
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard presented us with the idea of “hyperreality”, whereby the representation of something — however “true” that representation might be — becomes more authentic than the existing reality. As he wrote, it’s “more real than real,” where fiction does a more convincing job of conveying a sense of truth than the truth itself. Whether this new “truth” is true or not is then open to interpretation. Baudrillard is famed for his articles discussing the evidential reality of the first Gulf War, a conflict that was subjected to a level of media coverage and scrutiny not seen before, and where any truth of the war was lost behind how it was represented. As McLuhan had noted thirty years earlier, the medium is the message: essentially, the methods by which an event is mediated can shape our perception of it more than the actual event itself.
So where does this leave photography? We’re caught in a continual state of contradiction: every image, however untouched, is manipulated, first by our framing and exposure, then by the algorithms that generate the intricate combination of pixels on a screen, before raw files are tweaked and long before it gets dragged into Photoshop. Despite this, we rely heavily on the evidence that images deliver to us every day, even when a photograph of burning stockade on the streets of Paris is debunked, and then the evidence that debunks it is shown to be fake.
The Value of the Fake
At the same time, fakery has its place and also a value.
An audience’s preconceptions are key, as are the claims that an image seems to be making. Fargo, the movie cited by Windsor in his insightful video, claims in its opening frames that it is presenting a true story. However, the tale is entirely fictional and, as Windsor notes, cinema-goers had no problems with this. Art, it seems, has a license to play with our sense of what is real and as an audience, we are willing to participate in this deception, even if we don’t realize. Similarly, fine art photography frequently plays with our notion of truth, prompting us to ask questions about what is real and what is manipulated.
In both fine art and documentary worlds, scandals regarding truth hit photography on a regular basis. Not long ago, Steve McCurry’s reputation was brought into question when a number of his images were found to be staged and others edited. The details are complex but, however these "staged candid moments" were created and regardless of how the edited images have emerged, it’s at odds with McCurry’s own words in various interviews. “I believe that the picture should reflect exactly what you saw and experienced when you took the picture,” he explains in this interview. He goes on: “I want to just capture life as it is without really interfering and I want it to reflect reality, actually.”
By his own acknowledgement, his photographs should not be edited or staged, and statements such as these shape an audience’s expectations of what his body of work — and importantly, his legacy — represents. In general, those buying his work and attending his workshops will believe that McCurry is capturing life, not a staged or edited version of it. McCurry, by contrast, regards himself as a “visual storyteller” and this is an interesting phrase. To some, it means that he is an artist, permitting him to create work that reflects reality as he perceives it, even if that means manufacturing something that he feels to be true, even if it’s not immediately in front of his lens. To others, “visual storyteller” is a convenience, a means of neatly evading an audience’s expectations of what his work should represent given his membership of Magnum, long association with National Geographic, and his four first prizes from the World Press Photo contest. All of these honors are intrinsically concerned with documenting life, not manipulating it.
The Gap Between Reality and Representation: Fine Art's Plaything
Given McCurry’s reputation as a photojournalist, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the world of fine art photography would be immune from difficulties regarding truth given that it embraces this gap between reality and representation. Inevitably it isn’t that simple, especially given that, just as the boundary between truth and fiction is blurred and up for grabs, the line between photojournalism and fine art is also suspect, slippery and often meaningless. Truths are told and repackaged, sometimes exploitatively.
Last week, the London Evening Standard reported that Tom Hunter, a well-established fine art photographer, was accused of misrepresenting one of his former students in a work that is currently on sale in a London gallery for £9,500 ($12,500). Hunter is Professor of Photography at London College of Communication, an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, and was granted the Rose Award for Photography by London’s Royal Academy in 2016. He is accused — by the person in the photograph — of manufacturing the story behind an image, misleading his audience, and exploiting a former student and assistant. Upon reading the article, it seems that Hunter is not only creating a fake story that misrepresents the person portrayed, but also misleading those who are about to spend thousands of dollars on a photograph that’s not what it claims it is. The woman in the photograph has spoken out, saying that she was not about to start a long shift at a bar dressed as Santa; in fact, as Hunter’s student and assistant, she and the photographer were at the bar together, Hunter had asked her to pose for him, and the tale he had created about her was a complete fabrication in which she had no part.
The authenticity of this piece as a document of a moment, as a reflection of society and contemporary culture — and thus its value — is completely undermined. If you consider that there’s probably five limited edition prints of this photograph for sale, this lie could be worth over $60,000.
However, this being photography, the truth is more complex than that. According to the owner of the Purdy Hicks Gallery who represent Hunter and where this photograph is for sale, truth is not necessarily a part of his work. Like Jeff Wall reinterpreting a famous Japanese woodcut in his photograph A Sudden Gust of Wind, Hunter is a myth-maker, creating scenes and spinning stories around them. In effect, inhabiting a very different world to Steve McCurry, Hunter is a visual storyteller, though again it’s difficult to tell whether this is part of his artistic practice or a convenient means of evading accusations of dishonesty. Unlike Jeff Wall, however, this artifice does not seem to be on the surface, and one wonders whether those buying Hunter’s work are aware that the stories he tells are just that: fictional tales told to more conveniently romanticize the socially disadvantaged in order to create images that hang nicely on the walls of the wealthy homes of London’s art-buying elite.
Choose Your Truth
Truth, then, is up for grabs. As part of a photographic community that gives value to the work of those we admire and respect, we have a responsibility to hold people to account for the stories that they tell and how they tell them. This is not a vindictive move to try and catch out those who mislead; instead, it is our role as an audience to ensure that, at a time when truth is a rare commodity, our heroes must not be dishonest, however much they might lie.