The Cycle of Documentary Photography as it Pertains to Diluted Truth

In school I never much cared for literature classes. Because as the semester wore on, inevitably they would shift from discussions on the stories read within the class, to a deeper meaning behind the stories themselves. As we spoke of themes and hidden clues to the authors real intentions, I would speculate, or wonder, what if the story was written just as that - a story? What if Frost was simply ranting on a time when the path split in two, and not trying to compress an entire life of choices into this short parable. Because we always would like to look deeper, to be the one to find more meaning in something. And this reasoning offers context as to why people look at art as a whole, to see something within themselves, within the work, that was not always defined by the artist. But to say that all works have this deeper meaning cannot be true, but what of it is projection? And what of it is inherent?

I think it’s clear that my style of photography can most closely be defined as documentarian. A look that has progressed and shifted through photography itself in different forms. It is a style that seeks not to tell a story of deeper meaning, but to simply tell the story of what is. It’s often presented without comment, without a structure, only to inform the viewer that this, as a subject within the photo, has existed at one point in time. There are no claims made that it will exist in the future, or even that it exists now. For the moment the shutter is pressed this image, like all images, exist exclusively in the past. And through that, I’ve come to realize that all photography is a story of what was. Never of what is or what will be. So how can we claim, as documentary photographers, that what we offer is the truth? I argue instead, that it is simply one form of truth, and in acknowledging that it must be understood there are other forms of truth, meaning the image itself is a lie.

Once this has been accepted, it can be defined that photographs lie in three distinct ways, each stemming from the same cycle of repetition:

Production - The taking of the original photograph
Distribution - The original photograph is offered to the public in some form
Reception - The original photograph is seen by a third party
Consumption - The original photograph embeds itself into the third party
Interpretation - The original photograph becomes distorted when reflected on by the third party
Projection - The (potentially incorrect) themes are pushed into the third party’s work
Reproduction - New work is created retaining elements of the original photograph
Repetition - The cycle begins again

The first lie is a personal one. It is embodied in how we perceive memories due to the retelling as seen within the image itself. Skewing what we remember as having occurred when we were there as the image was taken (this can also skew the memories of those who were not there, or were the subject). As an excess, think of a photograph from your youth, perhaps one when on vacation, a photo that you have seen time and time again is best. As the photograph is of you, it’s clear that you were looking at the camera when it was taken - or at the very least, not at yourself. Yet try to remember anything about that moment other than what you can see in the frame. We can make easy assumptions like, “dad always had the camera, dad isn’t in this photo, therefore, he probably took it”. But to recall anything else will lead us down a path with no acceptable answer at the end.

The second lie is an artistic one. Photographs are often spoken of in terms of inclusion. Terms and phrases like “The Subject”, and “The Composition” (as a noun, a thing) are used to describe the acts the photographer took to bring things in to the frame and arrange them in a pleasing manner. However, the reality is that photography is an act of exclusion. By excluding more of the foreground the image becomes more visually dynamic through the rule of thirds. We, as photographers, are constantly shifting, nudging, and re-framing to bring our vision into the scene. All these exclusions, of which there are many for every image, lie to the viewer through not malicious intent, but rather one of storytelling.

The third lie, is that of a shifting baseline. I have written of the shifting baseline often, including it within other essays, but as a tool it outlines and reiterates the messages found here. With each passing cycle of repetition, the work shifts further from the source and acknowledges less of what it was each time. Yet, as is often seen even within my own work, there are certain elements that remain despite their inability to correctly tell the story that should be told - the story of the truth.

It isn’t enough to understand, or even accept that the above is factual, it must be worked on as a task much like any other. To see that there are lies surrounding us that are presented as truths is a burden that is passed along through each repetition. To stop this however, is impossible as we cannot remove the lie from the image. The task then becomes a goal of awareness and understanding. To accept and see that not always is there a hidden meaning of mystery and decoding life’s secrets, but that the hidden meaning is seeking out the factual in all photographs.