How Much Should Your Pictures Lie?

It’s unlikely that anyone today still believes that old fib, “the camera never lies.” If the Cottingley Fairy Photos didn’t lay that one to rest back in 1917, Photoshop certainly has now. But you don’t have to fiddle around with double exposures or layers to make a picture say more than it should; you just have to take the picture the right way.

Photojournalists, for example, are paid to take pictures that don’t just record a moment but which tell a story. This picture, taken by Oded Balilty for the Associated Press and which won first prize for the People In The News category at the World Press Photo Awards this year, doesn’t just show Israeli settlers in West Bank battling their expulsion. It also suggests that a small number of protestors managed to hold up massive efforts by the security forces to move them. Is that an accurate portrayal of the event? Maybe, but we can certainly agree that it’s a dramatic photo.

The winner of the main World Press Photo Award, this photo by Getty photographer Spencer Platt, has proved much more controversial. Although the caption simply describes the scene as showing “[y]oung Lebanese driv[ing] down a street in Haret Hreik, a bombed neighborhood in southern Beirut, Lebanon, on August 15,” the impression is that the people in the convertible Mini represent a very different kind of Lebanon to the country shown in the surrounding rubble. One Dutch newspaper called the picture: “The Cool People Vs Hizbullah.”

In fact though, recent articles by the BBC and Der Spiegel have now reported that four of the five people in the picture were local. They had fled the area during the war, met while staying in a Beirut hotel to escape the bombing and were returning to discover whether their homes were still standing. They were, just. Der Spiegel quotes Bissan Maroun, one of those photographed as saying:

“At first everyone said: That must be those rich, chic Lebanese visiting the poor neighborhood like a tourist attraction. But that’s completely untrue.”

Even the car had been used to ferry medicines to refugees sheltering in Beirut schools.

So these young Lebanese weren’t poor and they weren’t tourists. But none of that lessens the power of the image.

For photojournalists, truth in an image is clearly important, but when those of us who aren’t journalists are looking to create a picture that gets an effect, how important is it that what the image portrays is true? Does the reality behind the picture matter if the photo is good? How much should we let our cameras lie for the sake of our art?

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