Prevaricating Photographs

Lots of ink and electrons have been spilt over the perfect storm of confrontations in D.C. last week. I’m not going to spill any more over the confrontation itself; instead, I want to talk, and demonstrate, how our beliefs about pictures lead to the absurdity of the last few days.

Two of the biggest clichés attached to pictures are:

  • A picture is worth a thousand words, and
  • Pictures don’t lie.

The first one is, mostly, true; you can often say a lot more with a single picture than you can with thousands of words. I’ve discussed before the impact watching Schindler had on me after thirty years of reading about the Holocaust. There’s one big problem with this, though.

The second one isn’t true at all. Pictures lie all the time. Which means the thousand words the picture is saying might be the wrong thousand words.

Now, put Photoshop and its ilk out of your head. I’m not talking about the manipulation of pictures, which has been done as long as pictures have been made. No, I’m talking about straight-out-of-the-camera (SOC in the photography world) pictures. Can an unedited photojournalistic-type picture lie?

Like a dog, as it turns out.

As an example, let’s say hello to the king of the beasts. Looking at this picture, what would you guess about his state of mind? (We’ll ignore the fact he needs a good teeth whitening.) Did his wife make off with his lunch steak? Did some little girl ask if he was safe? Did the hyenas in the next area yell “Mufasa!” over the wall?

The answer, as you suspect, is “none of the above.” But what is the answer? Clearly he’s irritated about something. Right?

Wrong. The KotB is doing something you and I do several times a day, usually at the end of the day. He’s yawning.

The picture speaks a thousand words of a lion that you definitely don’t want to encounter in a back alley. But the picture lies. As someone who takes a lot of photographs,1 I learned a long time ago that you can get some pretty interesting, and often comical, expressions on animals of both the four and two-legged variety by clicking the shutter at just the right moment. (Which is almost always an accidental, not intentional, moment.)

I can show you someone that’s bored, asleep, mad, confused, and surprised, all in one five-second sequence, when in fact they were none of the above. Your face does a lot of things during conversation (or when at rest) that you don’t realize it does. And capturing it a particular moment in time does not necessarily reflect what’s going on in your head at the moment of capture.

As another example, I have several pictures of people who look like they’ve drifted off to sleep, including one of a pastor by the name of Cory standing at the front of an auditorium waiting for someone to join him. Did he really nod off while waiting for the bride to get to the front? No, of course not—he was blinking. But the picture tells of a sleeping pastor.

I know that you will be shocked to learn that newspapers and magazines have taken advantage of this for as long as there have been newspapers and magazines with photos in them. You don’t have to manipulate a picture to tell the story you want to tell, you just have to choose the right picture. If they want to communicate that someone has anger issues, or is slightly goofy, or inept, or threatening, or whatever else, it’s a simple matter to come up with a picture that communicates that, regardless of whether that picture represents reality.

Because pictures don’t lie, right?

So be careful about judging someone by a picture, or a series of pictures. Sometimes the picture tells us more about the story-teller than the subject of the story. (And, to state the obvious, this is true no matter which way the story-teller leans.) Use some discernment when viewing pictures (and reading stories about the pictures).

And beware yawning lions.


  1. Which is not necessarily the same thing as a photographer.

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