An unintended consequence of the digital age is a growing distrust and skepticism of photography’s ability to convey truth. Digital technology makes manipulating images so easy and fast that people have begun to challenge any picture that does not conform to what they perceive as a truthful representation. Two recent media images speak directly to this issue.
Too Real to Be True
The first is a picture from Mexico showing a car careening into a crowd of cyclists during a race. The frame shows the moment of impact as a half dozen cyclists fly through the air. The picture can best be described as unbelievable, because it either takes great skill to capture such a moment or it requires tremendous luck.
Some people believed the picture to be altered, because the moment was too real. In addition, a significant amount of cropping, enlarging and sharpening in post-production created an altered feel. Nevertheless, after some fact checking, the picture stands as a faithful representation of a terrible event.
Too Unreal to Be True
The second picture on the cover of the Philadelphia Daily News depicts a bikini-clad woman who had been caught up in an identity-theft ring. Around the woman’s ankle is a house-detention bracelet. Despite the newspaper’s attempt to label the image “photo illustration,” many people were outraged with the digital shenanigans. The picture was a fake.
The Map Is Not the Road
A picture can act as a map toward greater consciousness — it can point toward things, signify things — but it is not the road itself. Until digital photography came along, most people were, and perhaps still are, as Thom Hartmann  suggests, “unconsciously incompetent” about how pictures shape or construct meaning and reality. In other words, we haven’t been trained to think carefully about the power of images.
How can we trust what we see in the media in an age of digital manipulation? Can we really train ourselves to be more visually literate and consciously competent?
Even though most of us appreciate how media images can edify and inform us, or perhaps even save us from our personal biases, pictures are not a panacea for critical thinking. If anything, pictures aid the unconscious mind in constructing conditions of knowing the world in certain ways.
Theorist Thomas Sebeok’s claim, “The more we see the more we know and understand, and conversely, the less we see, the less we know and understand,” may be argued in an age when tampering with pictorial representations of places, people, and things appears to be more normalized as an unintended reality of technological change.
Sometimes today, the more we see, the less we know.
[tags]photojournalism, photo manipulation[/tags]