Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography

Errol Morris
Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography
(Penguin, 2011)

Errol Morris’s latest book, Believing is Seeing, builds upon his 2008 film and book, co-written with Philip Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure, about the crimes at Abu Ghraib, and the digital photographs that revealed them. Morris deconstructs the images of Sabrina Harman, the young female officer whose smiling pose, struck over the corpse of prisoner Manadel al-Jamadi, scandalized the American public. Her “smile and the media attention,” he writes, “is just half the story. The other half is how that corpse got there, and why it carries so many marks of torture.” Al-Jamadi died during an interrogation, but Harman’s superiors wanted it to appear that he was ill. Harman’s snapshots, taken postmortem, disrupted the fake narrative, and caused criminal charges to be brought against her; none of the men directly involved has ever been charged with murder.

What concerns Morris is how easy it was, with the aid of the photos, to perpetuate the narrative of Harman’s callousness, while the real story, the more difficult one of torture and cover-up, went by uninvestigated by the judicial system.

Morris uses digital images to reconstruct the events at Abu Ghraib; but his goal is as philosophical as it is forensic. Photographs, Morris asserts, need a careful decoding. That they rarely get one points to our lack of vigilance. Our cultural and political preconceptions, as well as our innate propensity for conjecture, often lead us to the wrong conclusions.

None of this is new. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag acknowledged that the ideas and feelings brought to the pictures determined their meaning, though not their content. Morris’s book, comprising essays from his New York Times blog, Lens, echoes this premise. Morris affirms the power of images as silent witnesses, and he advocates enlightened skepticism in deconstructing them. And while Sontag, as Morris points out, was a generalist, rarely reproducing the images she discussed, Morris is all about the details. By reprinting the controversial photographs, he wants us to look again as we read, demonstrating that while ocular evidence—as was made clear in Harman’s case—is more convincing than abstract ideas, it can also be misleading.

The book’s first chapter, in which we follow Morris to Crimea on the trail of Roger Fenton’s 1855 photograph “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” exemplifies Morris’s uncanny determination in ferreting out the truth. To establish whether Fenton scattered additional cannonballs on the road for dramatic effect, Morris scours topographical sites, visits the Panorama Museum with its “Soviet-style guide,” constructs a sundial, and even contacts a “shadow master” on Google. A serious-minded adventurer, he makes ample use of humor and hyperbole, printing the picture of his Russian guide Olga in high-heeled shoes alongside his imaginary visions of “hot flaming cannonballs careening from wall to rocky wall—perhaps landing at Fenton’s feet—bearing the invisible fingerprints of Leo Tolstoy.” He criticizes the influence of speculative thinking on investigative reporting, and includes Sontag among those tempted by it, but at times, he succumbs to it himself.

Some of Morris’s conclusions are decidedly ambiguous. What if Fenton did stage his famous photograph, as Sontag alleges? “What’s so bad about that?” Morris asks. “Why does moralizing about ‘posing’ take precedence—moral precedence—over moralizing about the carnage of war?” His casting of Sontag as a misguided moralizer, or as “photography police,” seems overstated, even hypocritical. Who’s to say that Sontag was not also concerned about the evils of war but, unlike Morris, did not think that one wrong excuses another?

Furthermore, claiming that one may make alterations to reality (Arthur Rothstein’s moving a skull in the desert, Walker Evans’s allegedly adding a clock to the sharecroppers’ cabin) to achieve a greater good, or a higher political truth, is a troubling message. In a world prone to moral exceptionalism—in the name of national security, for example—we need stricter, not looser, ethical standards. In the case of Walker Evans, Morris differentiates between “posing and deliberate fakery.” He sees posing as tied not to the intention to deceive, but to the desire for aesthetic wholeness. An artist like Evans has “romantic and aesthetic” agendas, as James Curtis, the author of Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth, about Farm Security Administration photographers, explains: He wants to “stand back and look at [things] from an almost dispassionate point of view.” Artists tell us more about reality precisely because, unlike James Agee, who accompanied Evans, they resist the urge to moralize. Perhaps there is truth to this, but it leads us back to equivocation. Morris asks, “Couldn’t we argue that every photograph is posed because every photograph excludes something?” Morris touches upon the questions of representation, but leaves the gradations of “posing,” and their ethical implications, unexamined.

If there is one final point to take away from Believing is Seeing, it is the need for contextualization. Images have an immediate, visceral impact, but they do not tell stories, even if we think they do. However, neither the image nor the narrative is a privileged tool in the search for truth. Instead, their relationship should be dialectic: the unresolved tension between ocular evidence, versus storytelling, may be the best way to explain how we receive, and simultaneously construct, reality.

Contributor

Ela Bittencourt

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