Why Doubt is Not Enough

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A photograph purporting to show recent events in Ukraine. It was taken in Israel in 2012.
From www.stopfake.org

While there are many angles from which to critically approach an exhibition, one of the most obvious options is to try and look at what a photographer seems to be looking to accomplish and then assess how well those intentions are achieved. Reviewing Joan Fontcuberta’s new show for Photomonitor a week ago, I noted that although it was in every other respect an excellent exhibition, it seemed to me it had failed only in respect of not achieving one of the key aims Fontcuberta appeared to have set out for it. This was that the show should be a ‘first aid kit’ for viewers in a world of images (a nice phrase which rather recalls Robert Heinecken’s modest description of himself as a ‘para-photographer’ who keeps things under control until the real experts arrive).

The exhibition did a brilliant job of highlighting the enormous limitations of photographs as evidence, Fontcuberta ably demonstrating how easily, comprehensively and convincingly the visual information of a photograph can be manipulated to show something that is not true. In itself this is nothing particularly ground breaking, this cynicism towards photography is very much in vogue at the moment. However Fontcuberta did it more skilfully than most, exploiting the particular visual language of different photographic genres and even showing how peripheral information like captions and objects can play a very significant role in supporting or distracting from the deception. My only problem was that it stopped there. That having noted and demonstrated that photography can be an exceptionally untruthful medium, Fontcuberta did not offer us any sort of solution.

As I said in the review, I think this is a problem because it leaves viewers with an uncontrolled sense of doubt on leaving the show that any photograph could be suspect. Doubt isn’t in itself a bad thing, I’ve often called for people to approach photographs with more scepticism and to be very careful about accepting any image at face value (particularly those images which circulate on social media, and which are so easy to share or like without thought). However this sense of doubt should be a starting point, not an end point as I felt it was in Fontcuberta’s show. Doubt is vital, but it needs to be supported by the skills that allow the person feeling it to then either qualify it or dismiss it. Failing to do either just leaves the feeling to fester.

As I note, doubt in photography is very popular at the moment, but in some ways the last thing we need is another photographer (or theorist) simply demonstrating the limits of photography as an abstract experiment, however thought provoking or entertaining it might be. What we need far more drastically is a tool kit (or if you prefer Fontcuberta’s phrase, a first aid kit) of tests, filters and systems which viewers can apply to photographs they encounter, to test their truth value, if only on a very simple level.