Reading visual images
Reading visual images

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4 Photography and truth

4.1 Are photographs truthful?

In this course, we've looked at several examples of the social processes of identity construction and a number of dimensions of identity. Our discussion has indicated that we cannot try to understand the role of images through one approach alone, but need to utilise both content and context analyses. It makes sense to ask whether the same sort of approaches can be applied to other types of image. How should we analyse ‘factual’ images which deal with social issues such as those produced by photojournalists for newspapers and magazines?

One problem that we must deal with at the outset concerns the ‘truth-claim’ of the photograph. We often hear people say ‘the camera never lies’. Another saying suggests that ‘one picture is worth a thousand words’. This suggests that photographs and words offer very different sorts of evidence about the world. Think back to the differences between words and pictures referred to previously when considering ‘realist and conventionalist approaches’ to photographs. It seems obvious that the photograph of the cow tells us far more about that animal than the word can. Because photographs are created by light which comes from the subject and is transmitted through a lens to form an image on film (or on a video chip), they have a direct causal relationship with the event or scene they depict. Not all forms of data that we can use in the social sciences are so directly connected with what they describe or explain: photographs are an ‘evidential trace’ of the reality they depict, as is a tape-recording of a conversation. However, most other forms of evidence/data do not have quite this link back to the events they document. They are records in a different sense – questionnaire items, written notes, entries in an accounting system, etc. – which are already interpretations of the events they purport to record.

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