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by William H. Benson

September 29, 2011

     In the September 4th edition of the New York Times Book Review, I happened to read an interesting review of a new book, Errol Morris’ Believing is Seeing: The Mysteries of Photography. Before Morris achieved distinction as a movie director, he worked as a detective, and so he approaches the business of understanding the details hidden inside a photograph, as a detective might, with bullheaded determination, sheer doggedness, and unflagging tenacity. His book is an unswerving search for truth.

     Six primary photographs make up each of his six chapters.

     The first is actually Roger Fenton’s two photographs of the same scene he took in 1855 of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, so named for the ghastly battle fought there during the Crimean War. The first photograph is without cannonballs on the road, and the second is with them. Ever since, people have looked at the two photos and accused Fenton of posing, of placing those cannonballs there in the second, in order to heighten the effect, an error in journalistic judgment.

     Morris though makes a persuasive argument that Fenton did not place the cannonballs there on the road, but that he took the two photographs at different times on the same day. Morris explained, “I wanted to experiment with lighting the cannonballs from various directions, replicating the directions of the sun and time of day.” With the sun casting shadows, Morris determined that the cannonballs may have been seen in the second photograph, more so than in the first.

     I wonder why Morris finds this so important. So what? Why would he take seventy-one pages to arrive at such a simple idea. He explains that he is urging his readers to begin “thinking about some of the most vexing issues in photography—about posing, about the intentions of the photographer, about the nature of photographic evidence, and about the relationship between photographs and reality.”

     The second is that of the Hooded Man standing atop a box with a poncho-like blanket draped over his thin frame, his fingertips wired to the electrical cables stretching up the wall behind him. It is one of those ugly photos taken in the Abu Ghraid prison in Iraq, on the night of November 4-5, 2003.

     The third is that of Sabrina Harman, a young female U.S. Army soldier, stationed at Abu Ghraib prison, who is smiling, looking up at the cameraman, her thumb raised. What makes the picture unique is that she is close to the corpse of an Iraqi man, who Morris identified as Manadel al-Jamadi, who was killed during the course of an interrogation by CIA officials in the prison’s shower on the morning of November 4, 2003. Sabrina Harman, Morris determined, had nothing to do with the murder.

     The fourth is that of a steer’s skull lying bleached out, white, bone-dry, on a sun-baked landscape in North Dakota in the summer of 1936, during “one of the worst droughts in American history.” The fifth is a Mickey Mouse toy lying atop the rubble after an Israeli air strike on southern Lebanon in 2006, and the sixth is that of a photograph of three children that Amos Humiston, a Union soldier, was holding in his hand on the day he was killed, July 1, 1863, at Gettysburg.

     For each of the six, Morris slowly peels away, like an onion, the series of mysteries that surround each photograph, digging deeper, taking it down to another level. Who was the photographer? What was his or her intentions? Was posing involved? What is the truth here? I assume that the lesson that Morris wants to leave with his readers is that we are not to trust our eyes, that what we see in a photograph is not always what we should believe, even though he entitles his book Believing is Seeing.

     Posing can mean excluding something of importance out of a photo. For example, what if an elephant had been on that Crimean road and Fenton had waited until it had passed? If that had been the case, Morris writes, “he posed the photograph by excluding something. . . . But how would you know? . . . . Isn’t there always a possible elephant lurking just at the edge of the frame?”

     A photograph can be our sole frame of reference, as can a literary work, a painting, a job, a career, an education, or a speech. Those who exist within that single frame will not often permit anything new or different to enter into that frame. Such people succumb to what Morris labels “cognitive dissonance: when we embrace one theory, we will firmly reject beliefs that are incompatible with it. Faced with evidence that is incompatible with a theory, we will throw away the evidence, rather than the theory.”

     With photographs, there is always the potential that it has been faked, doctored, or that the photographer staged it, posing the scene, waiting for the elephant to pass out of or into the scene. Photos, videos, books, the news, speeches, and other frames of reference are all suspect, and demand our scrutiny and best judgment to discover what is the truth here.

     Yet, people are credulous; they want to believe what they see. I have said it before here, but it bears repeating now, “Believe only half of what you see, and none of what you hear.” I would question the word “half.” At the most believe only ten percent of what you see.