Putting Generative AI and Editing Aside, Why Is It so Hard to Portray the Truth With Photography?

Putting Generative AI and Editing Aside, Why Is It so Hard to Portray the Truth With Photography?

As far as we can recall, photography is often seen as a direct representation of reality. However, the truth is far more complex as we dive deeper to examine the underlying issue. The issue isn't just about altering reality through manipulation with Photoshop or generating images with AI. Instead, I believe our societal expectations and perceptions have fundamentally altered how we view and interpret photographs.

Let's take documentary photography, for example. By definition, it is a genre of photography aimed at capturing real-life events, environments, and situations truthfully and objectively. But in practice, many of these images are somewhat staged or controlled to some degree. For instance, adding a light source to get a better exposure of the subject in a backlit situation can raise questions about the authenticity of the image. The issue here isn't so much about manipulation changes, but about whether the image truly represents reality.

When a partially staged scene is presented as a documentary, or when the presentation of reality is altered, it challenges our perception of truth. But we should also be aware that nobody sees the same way. Someone who is colorblind may not see certain colors, or someone with cataracts may see the world with lower contrast. So how do we know whose view accurately represents reality?

This brings the discussion to where tonal adjustments sit. Local tonal adjustments, such as dodging and burning, have been used since the early days of photography. Changing exposure to highlight certain elements or adjusting color tones can influence how an audience perceives a scene. Even viewing images on poorly calibrated monitors or in print with a limited color gamut is sufficient to distort reality. Not to mention the decision to present an image in black and white also affects its emotional impact. Therefore, are all these factors considered photo manipulation? The choice of medium has some level of influence on how we view an image. These factors alone are sufficient to highlight the gray area between manipulation and representation.

Photography, by its nature, is expected to be an accurate representation of reality. A photo of an apple is immediately recognized as such, even if spatial dimensions and size are not perfectly conveyed. Similarly, a photograph of an event is often accepted as a true record of that moment. But, in truth, framing and composition to a certain extent do introduce inherent bias. A photographer decides what to include and exclude, which can omit critical context and alter the viewer’s perception.

Limiting yourself to only photographing straight-out-of-camera JPEGs does not solve this issue either. The expectation that photographs are exact replicas of reality is flawed from the beginning. Instead, one of photography’s most compelling qualities is its ability to make us believe in the plausibility of its contents. This belief hinges on the suspension of disbelief, facilitated by perspective and lighting.

Traditionally, photojournalists have a responsibility to depict reality accurately. Yet, this quickly becomes subjective. What is reality, and whose perspective do we trust? Every image carries a message influenced by the photographer’s own thought process and point of view. This subjectivity means that no photograph can truly represent reality. Therefore, the focus should be on the underlying message that it is representing. Photographs are often believed to represent reality to a general audience, but trust issues arise when manipulated or generated images are presented as truths.

In conclusion, the challenge of portraying the truth with photography is deeply rooted in our expectations and perceptions. No medium can be entirely objective, and photographs are no exception, as they require processing by the photographer and interpretation that is influenced by the observer's perspective. As viewers, we can only overcome this challenge by critically considering the underlying message and context of each image. How do you interpret the truth in photography, and what influences your perception of reality?

Zhen Siang Yang's picture

Yang Zhen Siang is a commercial photographer specialising in architecture, food and product photography. He help businesses to present themselves through the art of photography, crafting visually appealing and outstanding images that sells.

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You overlooked the most fundamental reason why photography never depicts reality: A photograph is always a 2 dimensional transformation of the 3 dimensional world.
Even a 360 spherical camera only solves the problem of FoV.

So, when we talk of "photographs depicting reality" we have to define what we mean with that term, given that reality is 3D and an image is 2D.

in the context of this article, reality would mean what happened in the real world scenes. Your points were valid and opened up another topic for deeper discussions.

I think It's still the same discussion. It hink it's good to start with acknowledging that even in the best of cases, photography is still only a 2D transformation of a certain FoV freezing a fraction of a second of the 3D world.
From this starting point we can collect what can additionally go wrong and you presented a good collection of these, starting with:
1) colour inaccuracies
2) tone curve (lights and shadows)
3) dodging and burning (local adjustments)

I think the easiest way out, is to inform the viewer about what has been changed (unless it's obvious, like converting to b/w). I think most people are aware that colours might be slightly inaccurate or that shadows and highlights might be brighter or darker that in the actual scene. But sky replacement or object removal is something most people don't expect. (The later might change when this becomes even more available on smartphones.)

Digital art doesn't have to depict "reality", but an image shouldn't pretend to be only slightly altered when major changes have been made. It's not a hassle to write under an image "sky has been replaced" or "trashcan removed in bottom left corner".

PS: Thanks for engaging with the comments. Some authors ask for comments, but never engage with them.

Truth is an immense and elusive concept and by no means can it be measured or framed; we get to witness only its flickering bits. Just like in Kurosawa's "Rashomon" (based on Akutagawa's short story "In a Grove"). Or, as Manic Street Preachers put it, "This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours".

Well said, we are merely sharing our own POV.

Never has been the whole truth in a photograph. At best we can record a part of the truth. And there is no way a camera can record all countless factors and events that led to the small snippet of time it captures. If you photograph the aftermath of a two car collision, it doesn't tell me who is at fault. Maybe both drivers share the blame. You might be able to include something that is a clue to what happened, but that leaves the viewer to be observant and a bit of a sleuth.

Yes.. in the end it will be up to the viewers interpretation on what they are looking at

Photography as technology itself is very untruthful and limiting . Ppl who think they are doing great job by not editing photos or just trying to stay away from the unperfections of photography process are just not keen enough to learn how much more there is . Human vision and brain process of "editing" what we see is a direct example that even humans are processing images in their head, so things we see is a individual explanation for each of us. And yet if you try to differ from the millions of people taking photos while developing as an artistic entity, you can't create artistic signature and differ from others by not editing your photos.

right! I guess photography is something tied to personal experience and what we choose to see and portray to the world through the act of framing

Paraphrasing Avendon: . A photo is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion .... All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.
Photography etymology is "writing with light", for me the only value of a photography is the emotion it creates. Change whatever you want, add AI, remove... etc, a long as the "reality" portray of what you were looking at inspires the viewer, who wants/needs "truth"?
As long as it is assumed!

The challenge on this would be on the media to basically reporting the "truth". But the underlying challenges is still there. Photographs are still subjected to bias despite being "unedited"

Personally, I still think there is a benefit of distinguishing between a photograph and digital art. The threshold at the moment is the makers prerogative. I watermark my pictures as 'Photograph' or 'Digital Art from Photo' to provide some guidance to the viewer.

IMHO, for a viewer to understand a presented image, they must also the original RAW capture. However, this is processing involved by the converter from RAW to an image but it is the closest I think in a viewer determining the truth.

Yes but also part of the discussion here would be the act of framing itself is already bias against the original truth quoting Zdenek and Mike's comment above

There is. big difference between representation and truth. Photography is really only a representation of someone's personal vision as seen through a camera. The idea if a universal truth works a bit like this: We can all agree that the sun sets, that they can be colorful, but we each see different slightly colors due to our own interpretation. So there really isn't any truth in a photograph, just representation of what someone saw or experienced.

well said and summarised! thanks ian