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(Photo) Graphic Truths

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.

six comments

Nice post with deep truths in it. ^^

Photographs do say something, and I think they’re also telling the truth of the very moment they are taken. The truth could be as simple as the first photo, where I as a viewer might put it as “There’s a seemingly dead man lying beside the rocks.” Whether the scene was purely created by the photographer or not, the truth remains that the photograph is saying it was what it “saw” through its lens. The lying aspect of a photograph, I guess, would be in the surrounding circumstance and the functional state of the camera itself at the time the photo was taken.

Also, “lies” could happen when our sense of sight and own definition of what we saw interpret it in some way different from what it actually was.

For instance, in the second photo, I need to see a bigger version of the photo to find out whether the man was executed indeed or not. The caption could be misleading, “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon” but we often take journalists’ words as plain social truth, so I guess that must be right.

But without the caption and larger, clearer copy of the photo, I as a viewer might think that the man with the gun was threatening the poor civilian with a gun…and he might have pulled the trigger afterward or hit his head with the gun…I wouldn’t know and I wouldn’t want to know. What I know is that the scene in that photo is really terrifying and cruel. But then again, maybe the civilian must have done something grave in the past—like killed a fellow civilian or ravished a child, a girl or a woman, or been involved in the murder of a family…


You know what I find fascinating about modern journalism is the amount of self censorship that goes into it nowadays.

The military doesn´t like for photos such as this photo from Vietnam (which is one of the most famous photos in the world) to get out, and generally large mainstream media outlets such as Reuters, AP, network telivision etc. won´t air / publish them when they do get ahold of them. I´ve been told that most combat photojournalists have a large portfolio of work that may not usually catch somebody in the act as above, but show the bloody after affects of combat, and most of it will never be published or shown to the American public at large because of the impact it could have. Thank god for the internet, if there is a hope for this not to be a “video game” war for the American public its through sites like Live Leak and the like.

In one sense while not providng actual context neither one of these pictures actually lie. The picture above actually is somebody who died in the Civil War regardless of the aesthetics surrounding the corpse. Regardless of what Nguyen Van Lem actually did, what General Loan did is no better or worse than an insurgent beheading an American soldier out of anger.


hey, thanks for the awesome comments. I really liked this post and I’m glad to see it got a response.

The photos themselves don’t lie, the camera reproduces what is in front of it. Everyone knows this. But camera men can’t, or don’t, reveal how and what they did to take that picture. It isn’t an outright lie as much as a lie of omission.

On the same level, the pictures omit the context behind the photo, but Chris nailed it on the head: both pictures are images of violence, the context is what we put on the images to make them palatable.


I GOT STUNNED BY THE SECOND IMAGE HERE.
I WISH IT WAS STAGED.

-Nhoel of http://keywordspeak.com


I agree that there is of course context. But to say that a picture lies? In the second photo General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executed an unarmed man. That’s the truth. In context, he’s a murderer/terrorist. The context doesn’t change the truth of the picture. Whether the man was innocent or not doesn’t change what is portrayed. Context only attempts to make it acceptable.

As for who the General was before and after the picture according to the photographer; I think that’s a powerful state about how combat affects a soldier.


First, its good that no one made the easiest joke about a picture being worth a thousand words.

Second, I think people forget about how influential photographs are compared to sound bites and how much more influential than good reporting. Photos capture brief moments that, like the two above, are emotionally powerful. And yes, they can lie either by being patently untrue, doctored, or completely misdirecting, and thus still untrue.