Modern Photography Complicates Identity and Truth

In 1961, American photographer Robert Frank famously stated, “You can photograph anything now.” He was commenting on the evolution of camera technology, but if we were to adjust his words for today’s photo-happy culture, a more apt statement might be, “Anyone can photograph anything now.”

Once the burden of artists and voyeurs, now 72 percent of the United States has access to a camera via their smartphone. Among smartphone makers, the race to create the best camera is an important component of their sales strategy. The demand goes hand-in-hand with the rise of social media platforms, many of which are essentially photo-sharing vehicles. Photography has become a democratic practice and one which we increasingly use to communicate our values and identities as individuals.

Photography is an especially powerful communication tool because, upon seeing a photo, viewers are likely to believe that which is depicted in it. In her critical work, “On Photography,” Susan Sontag observes, “Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it.”

Nowhere has Sontag’s argument been less evident than in the use of photography during the civil rights movement. People across the country knew about the degradation black Americans faced in the South on an abstract level, but it wasn’t until photographic evidence began circulating in the media that the violence was truly “known.” In the spring of 1963, Life Magazine captured pictures of the Birmingham Police setting dogs and firehoses against protesting black teenagers. Shortly thereafter, President John F. Kennedy–who had until then been tepid on the subject of civil rights–went on national Television to proclaim that civil rights was “primarily a moral issue.”

Today, the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to use photography and real-time news media as a tool for influence. Although for decades numbers have told us that black people experience greater instances of police violence, it is the images from the movement that hold real power over public opinion. Recently, the satirical horror movie “Get Out” underscored photography’s role in the African American experience. Its lead character, Chris, is a black photographer specializing in humane portraits and it is only through his camera that he’s able to reveal the true identities of the other black characters he meets while visiting his white girlfriend’s family.

Photography as a quest for truth has long been the purview of the photographer. Brooklyn portrait photographer, Adam Courtney, describes his process as an attempt “to create something unique and totally true to the individual.” His work, often brightly lit and featuring only a single subject at a time, involves a certain amount of collaboration as he encourages his models to help him craft the setting as well. As a result, his images reveal a self that is both vulnerable and performative–an effect that he doesn’t see as opposed to the “truth” of his work: “A performance isn’t a mask, it’s an outgoing part of the self.”

But as images become more ubiquitous, their veracity seems increasingly in question. In “Camera Lucida,” by French literary theorist and philosopher, Robert Barthes, Barthes sees the moment a picture is taken as an instant in which the identity becomes fractured–parts of it “opposed” or “distorted” by the other, “I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.” Because each conception is also an opportunity for manipulation, Barthes goes on to say that each time he is photographed, he “invariably suffers from a sensation of inauthenticity.”

Social media users grapple with this dissemination of identity every time they share their images. Curating one’s social media feed means not just sharing with friends, but crafting identity. Most users will cop to choosing photos as a means to present themselves in the best light, but taken to an extreme, an identity on the cloud can begin to feel like no identity at all. Take the case of Essena O’Neill, the teenage Instagram star who famously quit Instagram by deleting thousands of photos and re-captioning a few to reveal just how contrived the images were.

Indeed, the very language surrounding photography divulges its complicated relationship to power and control. Cameras “shoot,” moments are “captured,” and by lighting, subjects are “exposed.” People don’t give pictures, they take them. As a photographer toting equipment long before smartphone became a thing, Adam Courtney has always noted that “The camera has power. As soon as you pull it out, it instantly changes people. The only other thing people react like that to is a gun.”

He echoes Sontag’s assertion that picture-taking is an event in and of itself, “The deliberate act of carrying a camera influences how one sees the world–and camera-holders and subjects are more likely to behave in a way that is photogenic.” Now that everyone has a camera, the changes to social behavior have been seismic. The millennial thirst for “experiences” has a foundation that lives largely in individuals finding new opportunities in which to photograph themselves and add another marker to that great identity in the cloud.

But unlike the experience, the moment, or the person, a photograph has the potential to live on indefinitely. While we can’t change a photograph (editing tools aside), a photograph can certainly change us.

Take, for example, the famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford, a black girl of the Little Rock Nine, and Hazel Bryan, the white girl standing just behind her, with a face full of hate, yelling. At the time, Bryan was only 15, and because of the publicity from the photo, her parents pulled her from Central High School, where the Little Rock Nine would face months of harassment at the hands of students and administrators. As time passed, Bryan, racist to the extent that she was a product of her time, realized that the picture would follow her throughout her life; it would be something she would have to explain to her children. One day, she called Eckford to apologize. In the days, months and years after that, she dedicated time to lifting up her local black community–trying, with no small measure of futility, to amend the history recorded in that photo.

While the photo in Little Rock provided an opportunity for its subject to self-evaluate her identity and change, not all photographs impact their subject for the better. Today, because “anyone can photograph anything now,” the stakes to remain in control of one’s own image seem ever higher. Subjects of memes and women who have dared to take or share risque photos of themselves have seen their lives upended when their image goes public, or viral.

Even more concerning, our post-truth era may also come to be known as a post-photography era. Though historically a record of truth, the ubiquity of cameras and the improvements to editing tools have created more opportunities to manipulate facts through appearances.

It’s been said that some ancient and indigenous cultures believe that a photograph can steal a soul. If a soul is that in us which is eternal, if it is, as Courtney states, “that spark of us that isn’t carbon, that part of me that makes me, me, not just a body,” then it follows that the external eternality of a photograph could impose some limits to the soul’s ability to live on. But, in today’s hyper-photogenic culture, we can just hope that, as Courtney believes, “there’s enough soul to go around.”

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