Writing on photography

Conflicting Visions

There was a time when the explosion of conflict in a part of the world like the Middle East or the Balkans triggered what now seems like a very old fashioned kind of concern. Alongside humanitarian dismay, there was often also a worry that these conflicts would act as a smokescreen for the proliferation of weapons, which in turn would ferment more bloodshed, new unrest, the whole process progressing through the region in question like a self-sustaining conflagration. This fear is still often evident, but it is interesting to note that in the context of the Arab Spring, and particularly the Syrian Civil War, that a new, dangerous form of proliferation appears to be taking place.

Photographs made by both sides in the conflict as evidence of the abuses committed by the other appear to be increasingly spreading to other countries in the region, where they are repurposed to serve new political ends. This was the subject of an interesting but all too brief piece by BBC Monitoring’s Dina Aboughazala which you can read here. In the piece Aboughazala describes the difficulty of verifying photographs released by both sides in Egypt, who are often desperate to discredit one another with ‘evidence’ of wrongdoing, violence, corruption. An increasing number of these photographs are emerging as fakes, or (in some ways more disturbingly) as wrongly attributed imports from the increasingly violent Syrian conflict.

Much is clearly at stake. If the veracity of these photographs can be proved they may demonstrate the legitimacy of illegitimacy of one side to govern. If on the other hand they are proved false, this may discredit those spreading them. The enormous difficulty of determining the genesis of these images, and the nature of what they show, has led to the appearance of spontaneous, informal fact checking organisations, like Da Begad? (Is This Real?) who seek to verify or dismiss the claimed origins of photographs, regardless of which side is publishing them.

Identifying the origin of photographs is perhaps easier now than it ever has been. I have often quoted Susan Sontag’s anecdote from the Balkan conflict which recounts how the same photograph of a dead child was passed around military briefings on both sides, as evidence of the other’s barbarity. At that time checking the veracity of this photograph would have been incredibly difficult. Now the incredible power of online networks, and tools like the ability to reverse search from an image, using search engines to seek out photographs with similar visual characteristics and metadata content, makes it increasingly easy for ordinary people to question the origins of images, to unmask fakes or identify miss-attributed photographs.

Of course all of these methods can again be confounded by someone who is aware that others might be testing the truth of the pictures they disseminate. Metadata can be stripped, extremely obscure photographs can be selected as source material, stills can be extracted from video, misleading editing can be skilled and minimal (for example cropping) making it difficult to detect without specialist software. But perhaps the biggest threat of all is simply the volume of material that needs to be waded through, the vast quantities of images that are generated particularly by massive social upheaval in the era of the smartphone. In a context where perhaps the most inflammatory photographs will be the first to be forensically investigated, the response might be to increasingly manipulate public opinion with more subtle distortions of photographic truth, perpetrated on an increasingly large scale.

In some respects though I find the spontaneous appearance of groups like Da Begad deeply reassuring. Writing recently about the notion of photographic democracy, I suggested that any real sense of photographic democracy also demands that an understanding of photography (with it’s inbuilt potential for lying as much as truth telling) proliferates alongside the cameras that are increasingly reaching corners of the world that have never had access to them on any reasonable scale before. Clearly Egypt, and particularly Cairo are not strangers to the mass availability of photo making and sharing, but still the seemingly widespread awareness of the limitations of photographs, and the positive action taken to counter-act this, fills me with a rare feeling of optimism about our relationship with photographs as pieces of documentary evidence.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography