Staged? Faked? The ambiguities of the photograph

by Chris Bertram on July 27, 2009

It is disappointing to get what appears to be definitive evidence that Robert Capa’s photograph of the falling soldier was staged. Sadly, too, I’m inclined to agree with the thought that the staging in that case also amounts to fakery. Still, I’m far from certain about my reactions here: staging a photograph is not, in itself, sufficient to make the charge stick. I was thinking last night about the US Civil War photographs where we suspect the photographers rearranged the bodies, and that is one of the examples that Philip Gefter discusses in an essay on the problem at the New York Times. Many of Bill Brandt’s photographs of English upper and working-class lives were staged, but that staging doesn’t make them bogus. Rather Brandt was using artifice to get his subjects to enact a role more general than any particular haphazard moment. That also seems true of the Lewis Hine pictures that Gefter discusses. Capa’s soldier seems altogether more problematic. We _could_ say that he is an icon standing for the many soldiers who did in fact die for the Republic, but that doesn’t feel right since it would be hard for the image to play that role for us if we knew that the man was simply acting. Brandt’s subjects were (barely) acting, but they were at least playing parts that they also played in life. And for reasons Susan Sontag discussed long ago, the fact of photographic _selection_ means that even where a picture appears to have a definite semantic charge, it would be naive to take that as a veridical report, since the image may well have been chosen for that effect from a sequence of which all the rest conveyed a quite different impression.



StevenAttewell 07.27.09 at 4:43 pm

I get that Capa moved something around, but how did they fake what looks like the bit of his head blowing off? Squib?


Tim Wilkinson 07.27.09 at 5:39 pm

Immediate tentative thoughts: if a photo is posed, I’d suggest ethical journos should have the subject looking into the camera to signal that fact. Also think you can make too much of the ‘selection’ business. Certainly a photo may be misleading, but in fulfilling their epistemic duty to assess whether it might be, and in what way, the viewer should be able justificably to assume that the photo does record something that actually was the case (the photo is not doctored or of a mock-up), and I’d suggest they ought also to be allowed to assume that what actually happened at that moment was independent of any significant and unobvious interference by the photographer (portraiture/mere-fashion-recording, for example, can be signalled as above or in some other way.)

A more rigorous treatment might try to get a workable distinction in terms of false suggestion (tending to give rise to untrue inferences) v false assertion (providing untrue data). Or more generally intrinsic/extrinsic misleadingness or something. Probably quite tricky though.

btw, CB – off-topic, but may I respectfully suggest starting Ashes threads before the matches start rather than at the end?


gmoke 07.27.09 at 5:39 pm

I’m trying to remember the film-maker (Robert Altman?) who talked about seeing “archival” movies in others’ documentaries that were actually his staged sequences done for industrial films and then “dirtied up” to appear as old. The idea I got was that this was not deliberate fraud but bad scholarship on the part of the documentarians.

With Photoshop and CGI, photographs and films should not be taken at face value. After the experiment counting how many times the basketball bounces which made me ignore the man in the gorilla suit coming onto the court, I don’t believe my own eyes.


fred lapides 07.28.09 at 6:26 pm

Sometimes fake more real than real. Except in nude women. Fiction is faked reality so why not photos? Say Cheese.


Henry (not the famous one) 07.29.09 at 9:08 am


I believe that is a pom pom (I’m sure there’s a better word, but I’m no expert on military headgear) on his cap, not parts of his brain. And the point is not that he moved things around, but staged an event that never happened. If so, then how would you feel about that photo once you accept that the militiaman got up after being “shot,” either to be shot again or to walk away?


ogmb 07.29.09 at 10:20 am

I find the locational evidence pretty uncompelling, but I doubt that a man who is being thrust backwards by a bullet he took to his head or torso just a fraction of a second ago would have his rifle-carrying arm this far back. That looks more like a protective movement by someone who knows he’s about to fall backwards than the reflexive response to an unexpected hit from the front.

About the other pictures Gefter discusses:

Lewis Hine: Obviously staged, and I can’t believe people think otherwise. It also has no bearing on the impact of the photograph, which rests wholly on the composition.

Rosa Parks: ditto.

Ruth Orkin: the big question is really, did she instruct the Sicilian guys to ogle again, or did she just trust they would have another look without prompting?

He also forgot to discuss Migrant Mother.


Tim Wilkinson 07.29.09 at 9:07 pm

the big question is really, did she instruct the Sicilian guys to ogle again

Not really – I reckon parading past a second time is likely to make them take more interest, not less. But was she walking more provocatively than usual? I think we should be told. I doubt whether the photo could exaggerate the lack of furtiveness of typical Italian male ogling in any case.

It’s pretty obvious, but the extent to which the presentation of a photograph has a (factually) informative purpose/function has to be taken into account in deciding whether it is ethically objectionable on the grounds under discussion. If it’s purely artistic and presented as such, anything goes I suppose. If it’s Exhibit 21 in a murder case, not so. In between you have various stuff such as stock illustrations to news stories v photojournalism.

There’s also more or less subtle propaganda whose impact is primarily emotional and can’t be pinned down to any particular propositional content. You might include much advertising in the latter category, to which any objection is likely to be on grounds other than mere image-manipulation.

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