David Hockney, Fallujah and the camera’s truth

April 19, 2004

I got a call from a film-maker who was writing an article for a photo magazine pegged to some disparaging remarks about photojournalism made by David Hockney, the British artist, in an interview with the London newspaper, The Guardian. The interview was making a splash in photo circles and the writer wanted comment, so I went back to read it.

Hockney made two big points, both aimed at photography’s towering importance to our experience of the world.

First, he said, photos don’t have the power or expressive range of painting. Quoting the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, Hockney said photography could never depict heaven or hell. Nor could any photo equal Goya’s horrific 1808 painting of that firing squad in Madrid.

Second, he suggested, photos have no valid claim to documentary truth. They probably never did, considering the rich history of staged pictures, from Civil War dead to the Iwo Jima flag-raising.

But the notion that photos are authentic has become especially dubious in the digital age. Now they really can’t be trusted. Pictures can be nipped and tucked, recombined, fundamentally altered — easily and seamlessly. In fashion magazines, a world without pimples or cellulite, they routinely are.

So without power or truth, do photos still wield authority?

It occurred to me that Hockney’s critique has special irony in light of the fierce controversy reignited April 1 by the spectacular photos of jubilant Iraqis amid the charred body parts of slain U.S. guards in Fallujah.

The perennial newsroom debate is over which horrible images to run and which to hold back. U.S. media — fearless about exposing sordid private doings of celebrities — are notoriously prissy about frank images of war, genocide and disaster.

International press agencies often spare the United States such pictures, which get big play on the Continent. Photos of violence out of the Balkans, Mideast, Asia and Africa are routed via the United States to Latin America, where the public is more accepting of images of real bloodletting.

(Odd that people with more experience of such horrors tolerate pictures of them, while U.S. audiences are skittish — unless the mayhem is make-believe. Then, as long as it’s just for entertainment, the gore can be as promiscuous as movie magic can make it, an indulgence European audiences find repellent.)

In this case, many U.S. papers published pictures of the Fallujah celebrants and their trophies, and everybody fumed over whether that was the right thing to do — whether it pandered to anti-war sentiment, conveyed a reality we should confront, or was just needlessly gross.

More important, though, than the merits on either side was the common ground on which the fight was waged: Everyone agreed photos can really matter, and they’re eloquent and truthful witnesses to the world.

That credibility is well worth defending.

Photojournalists are struggling toward tighter vigilance over the widening temptation to manipulate pictures. A North Carolina photographer gave up a prestigious award when peers decided he had removed so much background detail from a shot of two firefighters that it was no longer a truthful image. A Los Angeles Times photographer — who achieved a more dramatic tableau by combining elements from pictures of a British soldier and a Basra crowd taken moments apart — was fired.

The response is harsh, but it’s right. It may also be futile. Our visual environment may already be so polluted with deceit that the only wonder is that people persist in believing what they see. As commentator J.D. Lasica suggested, “The 1980s may be the last decade in which photos could be considered evidence of anything.”

We know about the major felonies, such as Time darkening O.J. Simpson’s face on a 1994 cover and Newsweek fixing the teeth of the Iowa mother of septuplets.

Many others we may know nothing about. “Photo editors have zipped up open flies (Orange County Register), grafted Oprah’s head onto Ann-Margret’s body (TV Guide), moved the Great Pyramids of Egypt (National Geographic) and covered immodest women (Louisville Journal-Courier and the New York Times.),” wrote Russell Frank, a journalism ethicist at Penn State.

But something irretrievable will be lost once we can no longer distinguish an arresting image from a true one. Substantive manipulation must stop. Fallujah reminds us that the alternative is shutting a window on the world that no painter, not even David Hockney, can fully reopen.

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