The Contextual Nature of the Photograph

Images have always been a form of documentation through history whether viewed in context or out of context, manipulated or non-manipulated. Our ability to seize
a moment in time, joyous, tragic, motivational, educational etc. have evolved and will continue to evolve because there will always be an audience for countless purposes whether or not the viewer comprehends the ‘true context’ or not.

People have always needed to document things the moment they occur, whether it be The Battle of Midway, Princess Di holding in her hands the Future King of England, A Monumental Speech given by Charlie Chaplin or even a person’s cat sitting on a kitchen sink. The importance of these events all vary greatly in our subjective minds. As many photographs have the ability to be taken and viewed ‘out of context’ (Barrett, 2006) owing to the skill of the photographer or the manipulator. Using these examples of ‘Context within a photo’ – if a person who does not or did not know Lady Di and saw that photo of her holding a baby, they would see it as just that, (a woman holding a baby) an everyday event and nothing more. A person’s knowledge of WWII’s war changing battles, Who Diana was, Who The Little Tramp Was and What his Incredible Speech was actually about and the Real Story behind the Cat on the Kitchen Sink. Whether the Photographer has included or excluded a touch of reality for the viewer’s eye and whether the Viewer is armed with the right ‘prior knowledge’ to take in the image in the right context. The importance of ‘Knowledge of a photograph’s original context’ (Barrett, 2006) these are just some example of moments caught by the camera that may or may not have much significance to the viewer but nonetheless all communicate powerfully when viewed in the correct ‘Context’.

The power of ‘Manipulation’ has shown its face, (or deleted its face) over and over through time. Whether for politics/propaganda, mischievous altering of the truth, cunning advertising etc. For example: Lenin deleting Trotsky from an important photo of them ‘both’ was to an extent rubbing Trotsky out of history (in the mass’s eyes) (Mitchell, 1994 p. 11). Hence ‘The importance of Knowledge’ (Barrett, 2006) gives power back to the viewer.

The ‘Tourist Guy’ photo, (an example of mischievous altering). Supposedly of
a man standing/posing on the observation deck of the World Trade Centre with one of the planes over his shoulder behind him heading straight for the building in
a matter of seconds. This was found to be an altered image with too many of the facts of the moment too compromising to be true, but not before it had done the rounds and reached millions of people’s hearts of awe and sympathy. (

This reflective assignment, to me asks some vital questions. In these cases of manipulation, has one been cheated or craftily entertained, has one been rightfully well informed of a captured moment? Or lied to?

Context, Knowledge, Manipulation aside, another important factor in the question of ‘Truth in Images’ is most people’s ‘willingness to believe’ nature. The Famous Cottingley Girls’ Photos of Fairies in the Garden demonstrated early manipulation and most importantly, people’s ‘willingness to believe’. (Mitchell, 1994 p. 7).
Even armed with the smarts in the way of Context, Knowledge and Manipulation, just simply ‘Wanting’ to believe in something special or out of the ordinary can be the most powerful tool Photographers and Manipulators can possess.

Barrett, 2006 ‘Photographs and Contexts’, Criticising photographs: an introduction to understanding images
Mitchell, WJ 1994 , ‘How to do things with pictures’ The reconfigured eye : visual truth in the post-photographic era 1994


River ism

A D Solomon