Exercise: Seeing is Believing


Read the WeAreOCA blog post ‘Seeing is Believing’:

Read all the replies to it then write your own comment, both on the blog page and in your own blog. Make sure that you visit all the links on the blog post. Base your opinion on solid arguments and, if you can, refer to other contributions to the blog.


Providing the 62nd comment is double-edged: I have the blessing of reading the thoughts of others in advance, and the curse of finding some new insight I can add…

Various new threads emerged during the discussion and I will attempt to unpack the pertinent ones here.

Regarding the calls for the killing to be confirmed by photographic evidence:

This perhaps speaks to an unhealthy level of paranoia in the west at the time, as it is essentially a conspiracy theory that gained a surprising amount of mainstream attention – after all, under what circumstances is it considered normal to show a dead body to the public to prove death?

In this instance I think the need for proof was tied up with the general mystique that surrounded the reclusive terrorist leader, including the scepticism and over-analysis that had already met photographs and videos of the man.

However, the underlying point of the demand for a photograph is the primacy of vision as a cognitive sense: people generally trust photographs – seeing really does tend to be believing in most cases. Photographs have this power due to their indexical nature. The flaw in this is covered below.

Regarding the US government’s refusal to release such images:

Again this speaks to the power of photography but in a different way. President Obama put his finger on it when he said “It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool.” (Guardian 2011)

Regarding the release of the ‘reaction shots’ to illustrate the story:

In the circumstances this was a clever move. Having decided not to show the act or the aftermath, this sober reaction, especially from a visibly shocked Hillary Clinton, gave the viewer a sense of being an insider – and to many (not all) people would have sufficed as ‘evidence’ that the act had taken place.

Regarding the faith placed in the veracity of photography:

Fontcuberta and a thousand others have shown that the camera really does lie, and seeing really shouldn’t be believing. As pointed out by other posters, it’s hugely ironic that a photo that is tangentially involved in a discussion of photographic credibility has been manipulated by a particular news outlet to remove Hillary Clinton (PetaPixel 2011).

The fact that something as supposedly indexical as photography can be untrustworthy is highly problematic. At one extreme it allows unscrupulous parties to manipulate situations by damaging but plausible fakery, and at the other it allows paranoid conspiracy theorists to deny the veracity of any photograph.

Regarding manipulation in photojournalism:

As David Campbell said, it’s important not to conflate processing with manipulation – it’s about the intent to deceive (New York Times 2015). The problem is, of course, where to draw the line. As useful as it is for photojournalism contest juries to hold photographers to high standards, who is doing this for everyday photojournalism?

Regarding the subjectivity of belief:

As Stan Dickinson says early in the thread, “truth lies in beholding, not portraying”. People tend to believe what they want to believe. Those who always trusted that bin Laden was killed will not need to see a photograph; those who doubted it can reject any photographic evidence as faked.


After looking at documentary photography from the point of view of the photographer for the last little while, and ruminating on issues such as reflexivity, subjectivity and authorship, it’s been interesting to flip the discussion over to the viewer’s side.

To a significant degree, the photographer can influence what the viewer believes regarding the ‘truth’ of a situation, but at the end of the day the viewer brings their own reflexivity and subjectivity, and indeed if you follow the Barthesian model, their own authorship to reading an image. For documentary photography one would presume that in the vast majority of cases the intention is for the two beliefs to match, such is the trust placed (sometimes misplaced) in photography…


http://www.weareoca.com/photography/seeing-is-believing/ (accessed 04/08/2016)

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/may/06/osama-bin-laden-photograph-obama-body (accessed 04/08/2016)

http://petapixel.com/2011/05/09/hillary-clinton-gets-shopped-out-of-iconic-war-room-photo-by-newspaper/ (accessed 04/08/2016)

http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/world-press-photo-manipulation-ethics-of-digital-photojournalism/ (accessed 04/08/2016)

Barthes, R. (1977). ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image/Music/Text [English translation]. London: Fontana



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