Evidence, not Proof

January 13, 2009 ·

Mike Johnston

Evidence, not Proof

Photograph by S. Liu. Used with permission.

Photographer S. Liu instigated a long discussion on photo.net this past week (link below) about last week’s column, for which I’d like to thank him. I wish my columns every week could generate such discussions.

Here is the message with which he kicked off the discussion:

Mike Johnston’s weekly column "The Sunday Morning Photographer" is usually some inspiring reading. However, in this week’s column (link on the front page of photo.net), he gave some "tips" on creative photography. One of which suggests "Pay somebody to enliven a scene….".

I think that is a DANGEROUS advice to street photographers and would be an insult to HC-B and other honest street shooters. There is enough "reality TV" in our popular culture, why can’t we leave photography alone?

I also double if he had Magnum’s permission to use HC-B’s famous photo in that article (with or without HC-B’s credit).

What is your stand?

It ‘s a good question, well phrased. (I of course especially like the last line, "What is your stand?" The important thing is for people to know where they stand.)

Here’s thediscussion.

It’s tough to characterize the discussion that followed without oversimplifying it, but I think that, generally speaking, it evolved into a discussion of reality and what’s involved in recording reality in photographs.

What didn’t really come up in the discussion is the more mundane, practical matter of how photographers enlist cooperation from their subjects. Let me give a concrete example. When I used to do portraits, one of my many tricks for photographing kids was to keep a small cube made of plywood, about a foot square, in the studio. With kids of a certain age — maybe three to five or six — I would ask them to stand on the cube. I’d be focused at that distance and ready to shoot. Usually, what would happen is that they’d be a little infirm on it at first, and then, once they got their balance and felt secure, they’d look up at me with a pleased expression..and I’d take their picture. Dishonest? No, but not "found." Was the child "tricked" into giving me a good expression? Does that make it less good as a photograph, or less of a photograph?

The most common example of enlisting cooperation, of course, is when we point a camera at someone and say, "smile!"

Authentic Photography

Perhaps S. Liu overstated his case slightly, but I sympathize with his position. What he’s talking about is what I call "authenticity." The reason I use the term authentic instead of "honest" or other value-loaded terms is that I’ve come to believe that it’s not ordinarily an ethical matter. Of course, we can all name propaganda photography that does harm, but most "dishonest" (i.e., not absolutely "found") photography does no harm. Also, it’s impossible to ascribe motive or effect. One person may make a highly staged photograph that he feels simply illustrates his beliefs and outlook adequately, while another may feel (with S. Liu, I think) that any staging whatsoever is abhorrent. Or, a viewer may look at a heroic picture of Saddam Hussein and say to himself, hmm, he looks like a hero, maybe he’s not so bad after all, while a different person looks at the same picture and thinks hmm, totalitarian propaganda, and they used pancake makeup and a hairlight. In other words, as an ethical matter it’s essentially too vague. Photography is not at root ethical or moral in nature — at least not inherently.

I personally have a problem with looking at stagy photographs. The reason is that I don’t think I see them like most people do. When I see a group portrait, for instance, I see a bunch of people arranged very unnaturally in order to have their picture taken. It always looks — always has looked — odd to me. When I see an advertising shot of a beautiful model, all I think about is the rest of the studio around the shot, and maybe how much the model rates a day. I’m sure most people don’t see things this way, or they’d dislike them more.

But, even for journalists, there is a very hazy line where enlisting cooperation is concerned. Someone in the photo.net thread mentioned the fact that Dorothea Lange may have "directed" the migrant mother and her children to get her famous Migrant Mother picture. But does that "lie" in any significant way about the reality of the situation? Roy Stryker, boss of the Farm Security Adminstration photographers, had this to say: "People would say to me, that migrant woman looks posed and I’d say she doesnotlook posed. That picture is as uninvolved with the camera as any picture I’ve ever seen."

Here is the situation in Dorothea Lange’s words, as quoted inDorothea Lange: A Photographer’s Lifeby Milton Meltzer:

It was raining, the camera bags were packed, and I had on the seat beside me in the car the results of my long trip, the box containing all those rolls and packs of exposed film ready to mail back to Washington. It was a time of relief. Sixty-five miles an hour for seven hours would get me home to my family that night, and my eyes were glued to the wet and gleaming highway that stretched out ahead. I felt freed, for I could lift my mind off my job and think of home.

I was on my way and barely saw a crude sign with pointing arrow which flashed by at the side of the road, saying PEA-PICKERS CAMP. But out of the corner of my eye Ididsee it.

I didn’t want to stop, and didn’t. I didn’t want to remember that I had seen it, so I drove on and ignored the summons. Then, accompanying the rhythmic hum of the windshield wipers, arose an inner argument.

Dorothea, how about that camp back there? What is the situation back there?

Are you going back?

Nobody could ask this of you, now could they?

To turn back certainly is not necessary. Haven’t you plenty of negatives already on this subject? Isn’t this just one more of the same? Besides, if you take a camera out in this rain, you’re just asking for trouble. Now be reasonable, etc., etc., etc.

Having well convinced myself for 20 miles that I could continue on, I did the opposite. Almost without realizing what I was doing I made a U-turn on the empty highway. I went back those 20 miles and turned off the highway at that sign, PEA-PICKERS CAMP.

I was following my instinct, not reason; I drove into that wet and soggy camp and parked my car like a homing pigeon.

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history, She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

The pea crops at Nipomo had frozen and there was no work for anybody. But I did not approach the tents and shelters of other stranded pea-pickers. It was not necessary; I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment….

Despite that fact that the mission of the Farm Security Administration was partly propagandistic and that Dorothea Lange worked for, and was paid by, the government; despite the fact that she felt she had the subject’s unstated co-operation, I think that any suggestion that "Migrant Mother" does not speak to the essential truth of what Lange found in the pea-picker’s camp is wrongheaded. (And, incidentally, the pictures did result in the rescue of the pea pickers.)


There are a great many degrees of cooperation. A great many photojournalists "accompany" their subjects in their daily lives and routines, and the subject is aware of being photographed constantly. Documentary photographers even live with ther subjects sometimes; Mary Ellen Mark (pulling a page out of Nellie Bly’s book), even checked herself into a mental asylum to take pictures there. Photographers rearrange dead bodies; ask permission; ask people to move; ask people to do different things, do specific things, do things over that they really just did, change things; ask people to move out of the way; push people out of the way; are you getting the drift or do I need to go on? The famous picture of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima was "re-enacted" for the camera. W. Eugene Smith actually added elements to certain pictures after the fact that weren’t there in the scene. Most still-lives are arranged. People wear makeup. Reality isn’t everything.

…And the Ethics of Cooperation

I used the Cartier-Bresson picture last week (legally, of course) not to illustrate a case where a photographer had paid an impromptu model, but to illustrate the way that something going on in an otherwise static scene can enliven pictures.

But what if I were to tell you that when he took that picture, Cartier-Bresson was in Greece visiting with an old friend, and he was out on a walk with his friend and his friend’s daughter, and he had said to the daughter, "run up those steps for me, I need you for a photograph"?

What if he had asked her to do it repeatedly? Does that make it less true, or less interesting, or less good as a photograph?

It’s not true that he did that (at least as far as I know). I just made it up. But the point is, often as not you can’t tell from the picture, and "you never know." In any event, I think, though, that you might be shocked at the amount of "co-operation" that photographers get from their subjects. The notion that all photojournalism, much less all street photography, is purely "found," is, well, just plain wrong.

Eugene Richards,Grandmother, Brooklyn: Staged, directed, or found? See if you can tell.

Coincidentally, the TV program "Dateline" this past week had an excellent presentation moderated by Katie Couric of the Jayson Blair/ New York Timesscandal. Blair understood the trust he accepted, and he betrayed it. It highlights the obvious conclusion: scoundrels, if they’re devious enough, can foist off lies on us, and there’s no perfect way we can protect ourselves against that.

In the end, we depend on the reporter’s word for her interpretation. All we can really do is take photographs at face value: and while they may be evidence, they are not proof. We all depend to some degree on trust. And trustworthiness. But you can’t tell from the picture.

— Mike Johnston

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See Mike Johnston’s website atwww.37thframe.com. Also, check out his monthly column in the BritishBlack & White Photographymagazine! (Usually available at Barnes & Noble bookstores.)

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Mike Johnstonwrites and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine calledThe 37th Framefor people who are really "into" photography. His book,The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.

You can read more about Mike and findadditional articlesthat he has written for this site, as well as aSunday Morning Index.

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