It is possible for photographs to lie. Anyone who has seen the picture of the shark eating a person out of a helicopter knows this is obvious. But the phenomenon isn't new. Since its inception photography, and by extension photographers, have used their pictures to mislead, misrepresent and lie. Especially when depicting war. Even in the Civil War--the first war to be photographed--war photographers rearranged the dead to make their photographs more exciting.
Then there is this image.
The photograph originally ran with this caption, "General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon." In this case, the photographer Eddie Adams didn’t intend to misrepresent anything, but the image, alone and without context, had an effect he couldn’t imagine. As he told the New York Times:
“The General killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths...What the photograph didn't say was, 'What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?...The photograph also doesn't say that the General devoted much of his time trying to get hospitals built in Vietnam for war casualties.”
It is a matter of context. People reacted because of the horror of this act, the horror of murdering someone who is unarmed. It could be Jeffrey Dalmer, a child molester in this photo or Pol Pot, and I think most people would feel a pang of shock and horror. Humans, save psychopaths and the insane, have a gut reaction to abhor violence. Even against our enemies.
But all photography inherently lacks context explaining the who, what, and why. This is the lie of photography, something we must all understand.
According to the NY Times, a close examination of the photo reveals the bullet leaving the prisoner’s head. It's an unsettling thought. It is an unsettling image, hard to look at, regardless of who you are. Is it justice that the general shot this man. Maybe. Was this guy a murderer and terrorist? Probably. Did he deserve a trial? Maybe.
Can I still feel sad watching a man get shot? Definitely.