Controversey in Photographic Images Explored Here

Why would anyone question a photograph of refugees in Syria waiting for food distribution in a Damascus refugee camp for Palestinians in Syria, released by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in January?

Chris Gunness, the spokesman for UNRWA is quoted in the New York Times as saying "the skepticism may partly reflect a blindness by many people to what is happening in Syria, which entered its fourth year of war this month."

Photojournalism is proffered as truth and that ethic is extremely important. Sometimes truth is difficult to accept. Denying the veracity of such photographs is a serious charge. Motivation of the accuser is a key to understanding the charge of untruth.

I read a book not too long ago that addressed this very issue. It is one of two books by Errol Morris I purchased after attending an interview in Washington, DC. He was honored with The Guggenheim Award and a symposium was held on June 21, 2013.

The titles of the books by Morris are A Wilderness Of Error, The trials of Jeffrey MacDonald and Believing is Seeing. The later book is relevant to today's blog.

The chapter "Crimean War Essay (Intentions of the Photographer)" is doubly timely on this day, March 13, 2014. According to the book "in 1855 Roger Fenton, a well regarded British photographer was sent... to photograph the ongoing war in the Crimea between British, French and Turkish forces on one side and Russian forces on the other.

The image in questions is one of two entitled "Valley of the Shadow of Death." One shows a road strewn with canon balls and the other shows the road cleared with the canon balls in a ditch on the left side of the road.

Liberal activist and author Susan Sontag accused Fenton of, in essence, untruthfulness. Morris set out to investigate, researched the matter, conducted interviews and examined the site where the photo was taken. Experts were involved in the study before, during and after Morris visited the location in the Crimea near Sebastopol.

Morris makes a complicated and controversial story interesting. The six chapters of the book address Morris's "own endless questions about images and reality..." So, as in life itself, there are at least two sides to every story and nothing is really as it seems, at least on the surface.

The accuser's motivation in both cases (UNRWA and Fenton photos) is critically important to understanding the matter in question. I will not presume to address those here.

Technological advances today enable anyone to manipulate images to suit their purpose AND instantly spread false rumors that get worldwide attention. All this makes truthfulness the most important element in human communication is general and photojournalism in particular.