Welcome to the last picture show

People have always believed photographs. Which is why they are the first casualties of spin
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The Independent Online

Just because writing on papyrus replaced carving hieroglyphics on stone, it cannot be presumed that each new form of communication will consign the previous one to the dustbin. Today, we have a variety of media existing in a somewhat uneasy symbiosis, with the unified aim of misleading us while amusing us. TV, radio and publishing get along just fine as we, the audience, get collectively dimmer.

Just because writing on papyrus replaced carving hieroglyphics on stone, it cannot be presumed that each new form of communication will consign the previous one to the dustbin. Today, we have a variety of media existing in a somewhat uneasy symbiosis, with the unified aim of misleading us while amusing us. TV, radio and publishing get along just fine as we, the audience, get collectively dimmer.

As always, the Golden Rule applies - those with the gold rule. For the most part they own the means of communication so what we get to think and know about the world is firmly in the hands of a few wealthy people. They exist to misinform us. National Geographic can claim to have "educated" what is now the world's largest population of parochial ignoramuses, while University of Detroit researchers claim that US television's coverage of the Gulf War meant that the more you watched, the less you understood.

Surely no one is naïve enough to believe that the great media conglomerates exist to inform us about the truth. Information is selectively gathered and packaged for our amusement and titillation, for a truly informed public is antitherical to the interests of modern consumer capitalism.

Historically, the role of photography in this structure has presented a problem. People believe photographs - it's the reason we have them, and not sketches, in our passports; and why the police use a camera to record a crime scene. We need to see photographs, for they offer proof of reality. This authenticity often jars with the interests of the opulent few, so the spin meisters of obfuscation are called upon to apply their talents.

In the past, their techniques were somewhat heavy-handed. Photographs were cropped to alter their meaning, miscaptioned to mislead and retouched when necessary.

In the Soviet Union, the faces of Stalin's enemies vanished from old photographs. In Britain, magazines such as Picture Post regularly "assembled" photographs from strips taken from other pictures. Many of the great iconic images of the past have turned out to have been manipulated. Eugine Smith, heralded as America's greatest photographer, is best known for his story on life in a Spanish village. Not only did he orchestrate his pictures, using the people as models, but in one famous picture at a wake, when a woman found him more interesting than the deceased, out came the bleach and ink in the darkroom, redirecting her eyes towards the corpse. Not perhaps a serious occurrence, but a solid nail in the coffin of photographic veracity.

But "doctoring" images was always considered a bit risky - for the original might turn up to haunt the perpetrator. The selective choice of subject matter may better illustrate the predilections of the proprietor.

My first insight into this was the coverage of a huge CND protest rally at Aldermaston by The Times. An aircraft, with the paper's photographer aboard, arrived a good hour after the meeting had ended and the crowds had largely gone. The next morning's paper showed a picture of a few stragglers, implying a poorly attended event.

For me, a more egregious example was that of a Daily Telegraph photographer during the final day in the life of the last pit to close in the Rhondda. He cajoled one miner into kneeling on the ground, "so that I can get the background right". The picture appeared the next day with the caption "Down, and finally out!"

Since then, faking has enjoyed a quantum leap with the advent of computerised manipulation. Now, with digital cameras, there is no "original" to compare with. There is nothing to stop anyone resolving the Kennedy assassination by inserting Ladybird Johnson on to the grassy knoll with a smoking gun in her hand. Fraudulence is easy, detection difficult and photography will never be the same again. We are probably the last generation that will accept the integrity of the photograph.

In the meantime, television has become the dominant visual communication medium. Not because it's been embraced as the purveyor of truth, but because it is the pabulum that we have been taught to crave. No one expects much variety in the world of info-tainment. Truth has become superfluous.

For those of us working in the magazine world, we plod on with the usual admonishments: "Lively pictures, everyone happy!" "No gore, our advertisers don't like it!" And my favourite, "Fresh colour, please!"

In a perfect world, the photographer would be handed a ticket and dispatched to some situation with the assurance that his or her interpretation would be eagerly awaited by those readers anxious for edification. But alas, the world is far from perfect. Today the photographer is sent off to illustrate the preconceptions, usually misconceptions, of the desk-bound editor - an editor biased not by any knowledge of the subject but by the pressure to conform to the standard view ordained by the powers that be. Any deviation from the "party line" is rejected.

The stark truth is that the media have abandoned "stories" - the "stories" repeated around countless campfires enrapturing mankind since the dawn of history. Today, they are deemed unreliable because they stem from what we really do and think, from our real experiences, rather than the externally imposed homogenised admass culture that is allowed us.

Photography may well be on its last legs, but those of us with cameras around our necks will do all we can to keep it running.

The writer is a former president of Magnum Photos. He has been a photographer since 1961.

A version of this article appears in the current issue of 'Index on Censorship' Vol 28 Number 6, 'Underexposed' (£8.99).

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