Seeing is Believing

© Joan Fontcuberta 2008

As surreal weekends go, last one is hard to match. I found myself at the top of Rhinog Fawr in North Wales talking to friends about the Royal Wedding and the death of Osama bin Laden. All on an uncharacteristically sunny and warm day up on the mountains.

Stunned at the news of the death of the Al-Qaida leader, I have been following how the story has developed in the last few days. As I write this post the absence of visual proof of Osama Bin Laden’s death still dominates the headlines on the BBC News website.

© BBC 2011

In this digital age of pervasive visual illusions it seems unlikely that we would take such proof as face value. Yet there is widespread desire to see that photograph.

Seeing is believing. Or is it?

The Spanish conceptual photographer Joan Fontcuberta must be laughing out loud in his Barcelona studio. For the last 20 years he has been playing with manipulated images and our hard-wired belief in what we see in front of our eyes. Interestingly, his latest work, Deconstructing Osama, revolves around the global media presence of Al Qaida and Bin Laden himself. Fontcuberta tackles the subject with his trademark irony and sense of humour, ‘photoshopping’ himself in many of the images in the book disguised as Osama Bin Laden.

But Fontcuberta’s book is no gratuitous visual comedy. With a combination of clever digital manipulations and a lighthearted approach to hard news he invites the reader to question the hegemony of the visual in the construction of reality. In his books Secret Fauna and Sputnik – check Fontcuberta’s Flash website – he subverts the documentary value that we have historically confered on B&W images. The manipulated images that he publishes in his books are totally believable. And that’s not just because they are a succesful visual sleigh-of-hand as a result of skilful Photoshop work . They deceive us because we really want to believe what we see; we’re designed that way. Fontcuberta knows that and makes the most of it.

Another photographer, also a pioneer of digital manipulations, who must also be rejoicing the faith we are putting in the so far unrealeased image of  Bin Laden’s death is Pedro Meyer. His book Truth and Fictions was a seminal essay on the idea of reality in a visually-dominated world. We’re talking about the 1990’s here; Pedro Meyer was already exploring visual illusions when most of us hadn’t even heard of digital cameras.

So, do I want to see proof of Osama Bin Laden’s death? I don’t care in the slightest. The US government reticence to release the image has already done photography a lot of good, paradoxically.

It has reminded us that photography still has documentary value after all.


  1. Rob 4 May 2011 at 11:55 pm

    I’ve just read through Baudrillard’s “the Gulf War did not happen”, and the information/ misinformation media circus that went with it (amongst other things). A comment is made in the introduction on how the Iraqi troops were actually watching news broadcasts for intelligence information, so the news was broadcast that troops were in different areas, etc.

    Without proof, can we believe the information, and even if that proof is provided by an intermediary (the news media, the US govt, or whatever) can we believe what we see? It’s also said that we need to hear the reports to believe what we see with our own eyes anyway. I don’t know what to believe anymore.

    Did Bin Laden even exist?

    1. Jose 5 May 2011 at 8:47 am

      Well done for reading Baudrillard Rob; he’s not what I would call light reading…If you enjoy that sort of
      philosophical critical writing then you must read “Welcome to the Desert of the Real” by Slavoj Žižek. In fact, anything by Slavoj Žižek is worth reading or listening to. This is just a taster of Žižek in YouTube – brace yourself!

      1. Rob 5 May 2011 at 9:54 am

        I never said I enjoyed it…. :-}

        Thanks for the links, I’m off to You Tube land now.

  2. Peter Haveland 5 May 2011 at 10:06 am

    I have been intrigued to see how forensic law has been forced to change in very recent times. We have been running a Forensics National Diploma course at my college for at least the last four years (prompted by demand from youngsters suckered by CSI no doubt!). In its first year(s) the students had to be taught film photography as digital images were not accepted as evidence. Now it is all digital as far as I can see…I’m just waiting to be asked to suggest someone to teach them Photoshop!

  3. standickinson 5 May 2011 at 12:03 pm

    When I was training to be a teacher in the early 70s, I came across a book called ‘Teaching as a Subversive Activity’ and, being a bit of a subversive at heart, I picked it up. When I saw that the first chapter was titled ‘Crap Detecting’, I was hooked, and bought it! The objective, it argued, should be to ‘help students develop built-in, shock-proof crap detectors as basic equipment in their survival kits’.

    Well, I don’t think the authors’ theories were ever taken up seriously by any education administrations or institutions, but I was reminded of the principle when I read Jose’s comments and Rob’s statement that he doesn’t know what to believe anymore. I’m not sure any personal crap detector could deal with the mountain that comes our way through the global digital media! It’s almost easier to go with the flow and believe all of it!

    But, hey, I agree, good news that the photograph still has it’s status!

    1. Jim 5 May 2011 at 12:26 pm

      Crap detection was renamed as ‘examining and learning from cognitive dissonance’ by educators from the 60’s onwards, in which learners are presented with opposing points of view and supported in making a rationale, or some other puzzling conundrum. I suppose that ‘crap detection’ lacked the right academic tone!

    2. Peter Haveland 5 May 2011 at 11:34 pm

      Teaching as a Subversive Activity was the unofficial textbook of the ‘Philosophy of Eduction’ module at my training college. I believe that Phil of Ed is no longer part of the syllabus in teacher training!

      1. Stan Dickinson 6 May 2011 at 8:01 am

        No I’m sure it isn’t! Can’t have these teachers ‘thinking outside the box’!

        I’m glad you know the book, though; I was beginning to think I was the only person who’d ever read it.

  4. standickinson 5 May 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Just occurred to me – don’t misunderstand the juxtaposition of ‘crap detecting and ‘Jose’s comments’ :-0 ! Do read the bit about the global digital media as well!!

  5. nmonckton 5 May 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Theer was quite a fascinating piece about the imapct of difital photography workflow on forensics in BJP recently:

    On the broader point about seeing is believing it strikes me that photography is perhaps heading down the path that scientific invetigation negotitated a couple of centuries back – when investigations becoame sufficiently sophisticated and the body of knowledge so large that we had to start taking things on trust from reputable sources because it was not possible to verify every scientific fact yourself. this resulted in the development of peer reviewed journals to help everyone decide what was and was not a reputable source.

    Unfortunately in the visual sphere we have communications media – internet, broadcast and print media – which give equal weight to the reputable and dis-reputable sources, and which in themsleves are of mixed repute.

    1. Jim 5 May 2011 at 12:32 pm

      “Unfortunately in the visual sphere we have communications media” … we wouldn’t be much use as photographers without it!

      I think is better if everyone develops their own ‘crap detector’ (see above) to understand the world, rather than relying solely on authority.

      Such authorities as there are should of course be scrupulous, but they won’t ever be infallible.

      1. nmonckton 5 May 2011 at 4:51 pm

        The unfortunately does, of course, refer to the weight they give to various sources.

  6. AMANO 5 May 2011 at 12:38 pm

    Seeing is believing as the old adage runs yet of what use is belief?

    It is still not knowing!

    Gory images of a blood stained probably hard to identify body are unlikely to furnish proof.

    1. Rob 5 May 2011 at 1:03 pm

      In the Zizek video referred to by Jose, there is something about belief and virtual symbolism. You don’t need to see to believe, you just have to presuppose someone else’s beliefs. You uses the example of Father Christmas.

      He also says that if people identify to directly with their beliefs, it can make them come across as “demonic”. I can see this with the fundamentalists and other types (they’re in every society, I’m not implying only Bin Laden’s associates here).

      Anyway, the Zizek video was interesting, a little too much to take in all in one sitting (I guess there’s about 75 mins of video, in 5x 15 min chunks). Something to go back to and sip at, rather than gorge.

      1. Jose 5 May 2011 at 3:29 pm

        I agree. It is not advisable to ‘gorge’ on Žižek; one runs the risk of choking. For those of you who are daring enough here is another challenging but illuminating read:

        The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord – you can read it here

      2. Peter Haveland 5 May 2011 at 11:57 pm

        The Debord should be essential reading for all visual artists. I am beginning to feel a resurgence of interest in the Letterists and the Situationists. If Hypermodernism, with its idea that fashion is the model for culture, rapid change etc, and psycho-geography (Will Self and others) re-emerging perhaps there is an opening fo Neo-situationism based on Žižek’s neo-Marxism. Though how that would impact on the ‘seeing is believing’ and ‘the camera never lies’ arguments and the probity of documentary photogrpahy is by no means clear. I would wish that it might clear away the pious nonsense that we hear from a partial media (newspapers all have their own agenda as does the BBC etc) about ‘objective’ reporting and make way for the sort of reporting that the great James Cameron (not the film maker!) advocated; subjective but open and honest about its subjectivity.
        The probability is that no documentary project, whether a single image, portfolio, film book or whatever, ever changed anyone’s mind but I suspect that it helped and reinforced opinion and perhaps even galvanised some into action; but the same may be said about committed fiction. So the truth (whatever that is) may be equally or better represented in fiction than fact; does it matter if the image records an incident or is constructed to represent one one; even one that hasn’t happened but tells the story?

        I rather suspect this another of those, “write your answer in the space provided below.” 🙂

      3. Jose 6 May 2011 at 8:39 am

        “So the truth (whatever that is) may be equally or better represented in fiction than fact; does it matter if the image records an incident or is constructed to represent one one; even one that hasn’t happened but tells the story?”

        I totally agree Peter. I guess that the work of photographers such as Mohamed Bourouissa, and even Jeff Wall to an extent, fall within that category of ‘constructed-yet-represented reality’.

        And Debord is a must-read no doubt. The problem is that he encourages the radical in me, my alter-ego happy to grab one of those new Banksy’s TESCO molotov cocktails and cause havoc… See it here, by the way, it is already dividing opinion in Bristol.

      4. Stan Dickinson 6 May 2011 at 11:26 am

        I havn’t read the theory that lies behind some of these comments, so forgive me if what I say is off-target but it strikes me that aligned with ‘seeing is believing’ might be a notion that truth lies in beholding, not portraying, which makes it an impossible concept for the artist to pin down (and presumably therefore absolves him/her of any responsibility!).

  7. Graeme Hoose 5 May 2011 at 4:35 pm

    The biggest question this triggers for me with all the calls for THE PICTURE… are we now living ina purely visual world… have people lost the ability to believe without visual queues ?

    To me this smacks of Orwellian mind control… in the way images of “the enemy” and manipulated images of “your leaders” become tools of control.

    1. Peter Haveland 6 May 2011 at 12:00 am

      There are those that would answer, “yes” to your question and suggest that Big Brother owns Fox News!

  8. nmonckton 6 May 2011 at 8:40 am

    I think we have never really believed without visual cues. It may even be that we evolved this way so that we could rapidly identify dangerous situations or people. Research suggests that first impressions are 70-80% governed by appearance.

    It is hardly a new phenomenon – one of the key moments in Christianity is about a sceptical Thomas refusing to believe until he had visual (and tactile) affirmation of the stigmata.

    And as someone noted above – even with visual clues there are still the conspiracy theorists…

    1. Rob 6 May 2011 at 11:26 am

      “I think we have never really believed without visual cues.” But then you mention religion (specifically Christianity).

      There are millions of people who chose to follow their religion, for which there is (as far as I’m aware) no direct evidence, no visual cues other than their particular scripture. As I posted earlier, Zizek talks of presupposing other peoples beliefs. It becomes a common mythology. And so to Barthes…

      1. nmonckton 6 May 2011 at 11:51 am

        It’s a fair point Rob, and one I considered as I was writing the above. I agree there are no direct visual clues – i.e. we can’t generally see our particular version of God. However organised religion is based on visual cues – churches are full of them – put there by people we have generally trusted. We have also traditionally attributed things we don’t understand to a god, and devloped visual cues along the way – rainbows and the Noah story is perhaps a classic example.

      2. Rob 6 May 2011 at 12:51 pm

        “However organised religion is based on visual cues – churches are full of them – put there by people we have generally trusted.”

        This takes us back to the original post I believe. We “trust” those who introduce us to the symbols, and if we follow the adage as old as photography itself – the camera never lies.

        Only it can, and it does. We know that, we have the visual evidence to prove it.

        I’m not having a dig at religion, rather I’m questioning the motives of those in power, whatever the source of that power might be (political, religious or financial).

        Peter H, you have a lot to answer for – my life used to be quite straightforward!

      3. Stan Dickinson 6 May 2011 at 1:13 pm

        Rob, you’ve constructed your crap detector!

      4. Peter Haveland 6 May 2011 at 2:30 pm

        Rob – welcome to the simulated world 🙂

      5. Rob 6 May 2011 at 3:00 pm

        Trying to resist quoting quoting Cypher….

        …oh, why not.

        “why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?”


    2. CliveW 6 May 2011 at 3:35 pm

      Blue Cheer? ‘ }

  9. Jose 6 May 2011 at 12:06 pm

    I know this only touches on this post tangentially but this discussion reminded me of an interesting fact. In many indigenous, non-industrial societies the wise men (or women), those whom ordinary people approach for advice on all matters to do with life or after-life, are precisely the blind – those who cannot see. They also tend to have a very high social status and are usually considered fearsome, even dangerous individuals.

    Just a thought.

  10. Eileen 6 May 2011 at 1:20 pm

    An interesting point Jose: I suspect that a fascination with blindness may in many ways be testament to the importantance of sight. An association of blindess with old age, and perhaps a sense that they are looking at another world than the visible one we see are surely part of the picture also.

    I was fortunate to be inside a neolithic passage tomb (Newgrange, Co Meath) during the Royal Wedding (almost as far away as your mountain top). Two things particularly relevant to this discussion (and photography more generally) struck me during the visit. Firstly, in so far as we have worked out the intentions of the original builders, the core of the edifice seems to have been about celebrating the light of the sun as the year turns. Inside the tomb is very dark, with a tiny opening which fills the space with light for a few minutes at dawn during the winter solstice. An early form of painting with light I think.

    Secondly there is some primitive decoration on stones both inside and outside the cairns. By looking closely at the primitive carvings you can see how difficult it was to make these marks on hard stone using extremely primitive tools. There are quite deliberate patterns, set out in a fairly organised way, suggesting that they had a definite meaning and significance even if we’re not sure what it was. Looking at these marks made me think about how important ‘art’ in its broadest sense, and/or visual symbols and signs, are to the human psyche.

    I think that human beings have known how to manipulate our reactions to visual stimuli for a very long time.

    1. AMANO 7 May 2011 at 10:38 pm

      thats’ an interesting analogy … burial tomb as an early camera obscura !?

    2. Jose 8 May 2011 at 12:09 am

      “…and perhaps a sense that they are looking at another world than the visible one we see are surely part of the picture also.”

      Definitely Eileen. And that has a connection with shamanism and altered states of conciousness – now I’m totally off-topic here! Shamans are powerful people. And when they are in trance they happen to be blind to the world as we know it. Yet they are still able to ‘see’ while they are in that state.

      1. CliveW 8 May 2011 at 10:46 am

        There are parallels between shamanism and the position of the artist in our societies going back at least to making cave paintings to negotiate with the physical world.

        I would speculate that as one reason for the emotional anger and resentment generated by contemporary art; the priest deserting their flock.

        Other manifestations were, and can still be, in the commercial and cultural market for photography.

        The analogue process was a black box process, literally and metaphorically. You poured in some light, poured in some chemicals, shook it all up and eventually out came an image, voilà!

        A magic trick performed by someone privy to an understanding of natural lores that allowed them to control the transformation in the black box.

        Each magician had some spells personal to them and you selected your magician according to your needs; be that photographing beer, Bentleys, or hanging on your wall.

        Of course digital opens up the black box and we can, arguably, all see how the magician saws their assistant in half.

        But some vestige of the old beliefs survive; some photographers are still being mythologised as shamanic.

      2. Peter Haveland 8 May 2011 at 4:12 pm

        “Of course digital opens up the black box and we can, arguably, all see how the magician saws their assistant in half.” The understanding of this process of democratisation of art, even the disappearance of the concept of talent goes back a long way. Walter Benjamin in the 1930 discussed it in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” ( or in the collection of his essays “Illuminations”

      3. CliveW 8 May 2011 at 4:32 pm

        I’m particularly referring to the impact digital photography has had on paid for professional photography, where the client had previously shown deference to the photographer, rather than commenting on the wider art practice.

        The creation of a discontinuity where people who were getting paid rapidly found themselves not getting paid.

        First they came for the typesetters… ‘ }

      4. Peter Haveland 8 May 2011 at 5:35 pm

        I have to say that the rot set in in rural areas long before digital made any sort of impact. Anyone who could take a snap of Aunty Flo in the beach without chopping her head of set themselves up as ‘Photographers’, then every potential client realised that they could take equally bad images so they did! Hey, ho!

      5. CliveW 8 May 2011 at 6:18 pm

        Oh I’m sure you’re right about that Peter, professional photography has always been a chancer’s game and disreputable from the off. ‘ }

      6. Rob 9 May 2011 at 8:06 am

        There’s an article in f2 magazine this month about this very thing…

  11. Eileen 7 May 2011 at 3:08 pm

    The link above takes you to a visualisation of how the news of Bin Laden’s death spread on Twitter. I was going to share it on the Flickr forum, but the points made about the importance of sources we deem to be credible seemed very relevant to this discussion.

    And here is another interesting discussion about the decision not to post Bin Laden’s death picture.
    Cruel Radiance (discussed in the article) sounds an interesting book – has anyone read it?

  12. AMANO 7 May 2011 at 10:37 pm

    The fascinating debate here surely is a reminder that we are not living in a purely visual world.

    Psychologically, we need both images and text with more visual than text if psychologists are right.

    The release of videos of Bin Laden by the U.S. government is a testimony to that !?

    I find they help put the whole matter of Bin Laden’s death into perspective.

  13. AMANO 8 May 2011 at 11:40 am

    Perhaps I should be a little more accurate over my suggestion that perception is both visual and audible but no doubt there are differences of view over this.

    Education in the past has tended to withhold the visual and emphasised the audible (remember those long Shakespeare lessons!?) yet nowadays there is more evidence for the use of the visual in classrooms.
    When there was a spate of Shakespeare movies during the nineties, I rediscovered Shakespeare!

    1. nmonckton 10 May 2011 at 6:15 pm

      Presumably going to make her next state visit a little difficult to report. ‘Here’s our president shaking hands with no-one!’

  14. Cedric Sherwood 12 May 2011 at 4:59 pm

    Alice followed the White Rabbit until the burrow divided. There she saw one that was marked ‘Photography’. Having heard that this practice was exciting and challenging she ventured further only to be met by many wise people speaking of everything but photography. Pale and disturbed she ran back to the saner world of the White Rabbit.

    [Unfortunately I am unable to produce an image of this event as I was too busy contemplating my navel and spouting long words that have no meaning.!!]

    1. richard506896 13 March 2015 at 4:07 pm

      To quote from Josef Koudelka:

      “I don’t pretend to be an intellectual or a philosopher, I just look”

  15. Jim 12 May 2011 at 5:06 pm

    How come you can ‘reply’ to some parts of the conversation and not others then? Who gets to decide? Or is the decision made by …. wait for it … the internet itself?

    1. Jim 2 April 2014 at 5:35 pm

      Cedric! You seem to have killed that conversation off.

  16. Pdog19 11 May 2014 at 5:56 pm

    In response for exercise 35, for P2: Documentary

    Were the governments were right not to release any images? I think this is an impossible question to answer, however, in my opinion the global release of such images could certainly have incited further violence, but even more importantly they would have instantaneously created another martyr – the very last thing the western world needed to create as an output from this particular war.

    In the event that images had been released, would we have believed them? I think the public would have believed what they wanted to believe and rejected what didn’t suit! That said, photographs, authentic (or otherwise) would have made the declaration of Bin Laden’s death more real because humans rely very heavily on their most unreliable sense – sight.

    [As an aside and picking up on the comments form Jose re: shamanism and Eileen re: respect/revere for blind people and the ability for people to visually manipulate the situation (and Clive on everything including mythology…); apparently university research (forget which one) has shown that, generally, people are much better at detecting lies when talking to somebody on the phone, the same lies that would go unnoticed if the people where talking face-to-face.]

    To quote Sean O’Hagan’s article ‘Osama bin Laden’s body: the world’s most incendiary image’

    Photography, for better or worse, possesses this immediate power in a way that words – too reflective – and the moving image – too animated – do not. It is a moment, freeze-framed forever.

    Taking this thought further and taking Amano’s comment (slightly out of context) ‘gory images of a blood stained, probably hard to identify, body’ – what format should/would the images have taken? Bloody and gory; bullet riddled; or perhaps clean and clinical taken in field mortuary after the postmortem with the Y-incision on display???? Regardless of the photograph selected for the front pages across the world, I have no doubt the image would have been seared onto the retinas of Bin Laden’s flock.

    [Off topic again and onto Zizek; assuming we select the final option for the photograph (the Y-incision) would this cover all three of Zizek’s realities?]

  17. curriehannah 29 May 2014 at 2:42 pm

    This exercise asks that we read the ‘WeAreOCA’ blog post ‘Seeing is Believing’, writing our own comment both on the blog page and in our own blog.

    The article uses the lack of photographic evidence from Bin Laden’s death to discuss whether or not we really needed to see it to believe it had occurred. The public tend to want to believe everything they hear; but I think that in this case physical evidence was a necessity for conviction of the story.

    The article toys with the accuracy of the common belief that ‘seeing is believing’. We must acknowledge that if an image claiming to prove Bin Laden’s death did appear, that the general public really would not know for sure that it was in fact him. It may be just a look alike, or a manipulated image. Once again, we would be trusting the world’s press blindly; assuming that they would be documenting the event accurately.

    Other comments on the subject have come to similar conclusions. We now need to decide for ourselves whether something is fact or not; as many media outlets take information from both reputable and disreputable sources. The statement that ‘seeing is believing’ is further thwarted by many examples, including Father Christmas, Christianity and various other religions that rely on blind faith. Thus, making up our own minds about said information is all that we can do. Each individual will believe and disbelieve starkly differently, so we cannot make a set rule that the statement of ‘seeing is believing’ is either false or true.

  18. mattjamesphotos 26 November 2014 at 6:07 pm

    As with the previous couple of responses to this post I am replying as part of the Documentary exercise.
    I feel the US Government were quite right not to issue an image of a dead Bin Laden due to the response this may have created in the radical Muslim world, this combined with the power of such an image as a symbol of martyrdom for ever more.
    I am in disagreement with curriehannah who feels this evidence was a necessity, there is no necessity for any of us to see such an image, what would this really prove to us? I personally never met Bin Laden, and along with the majority of the world. We base our visual judgment of who he was by a small selection of aging photographs and video clips, so our authority in recognising a dead body would have accounted for very little (combine this with the fact that every week another Navy Seal shot him, probably rendered the body unrecognisable!). In this instance we must therefore take professional advice and accounts, DNA, fingerprints, voice recognition, which quite often account for much more than a photograph in the modern age.
    We live in a sceptical world, as adults we need to develop our own crap detection or work out what we believe, we need to learn not to be gullible and to work out who is providing the correct information to us, in these news channels, newspapers and websites we then place our trust.
    Even with visual evidence we create conspiracy theories and distrust so we must therefore decide what is and isn’t real with the information that is provided. Having watched the Slavoj Zizek video we decide to believe in the real real, to gain an understanding of the symbolic real and when we are stepping into the realms of the imaginary real, we don’t discount anything without visual evidence otherwise we could rule out anything before the mid 1800, Father Christmas, the death of Hitler and Bin Laden, believing only in what we have seen visual evidence of; The death of JFK, Man on the moon, the Loch ness monster and unicorns, seeing is not always believing!

  19. richard506896 8 March 2015 at 4:43 pm

    This is my response to the WeAreOCA blog post of May 2011, as part of the Documentary course.

    First of all, thanks to Cedric for his witty riposte. You are not alone. I lost my thread of Zizec after four minutes. Many of the other links provided are now out of date. (Breathes barely audible sigh of relief)

    Jose asked whether seeing is believing, using the example of the confirmation (or otherwise) of the death of Osama Bin Laden and whether a photograph of his body would enable us to believe (not the same as knowing) that he was actually dead. He concluded by stating that he didn’t care in the slightest if he saw proof of Bin Laden’s death. I suspect that is the response of the majority of the population.

    From what I’ve seen and read in this section of the course, the objectivity of the photograph as a document is always open to question. The arguments are well rehearsed with regard to a number of factors. The background, gender, age and intent of the photographer, the medium in which it is shown, the context of the publication, etc. Even if the photograph is presented in the most objective way possible, the act of looking and seeing the image involves the individual’s subjective processing. Seeing incorporates understanding. Understanding involves using our ‘crap detector’ (sorry, learning from cognitive dissonance) to judge (for ourselves) the veracity of what is presented to us. Like Jose, I couldn’t care less about seeing a photo of Bin Laden’s body.

    I can use an over simplified example. This week has seen the publication of a photograph of what is explained as a weasel on the back of woodpecker in flight. It was presented on the BBC with an explanation that the weasel was carried aloft when it attacked the woodpecker. The photographer reported that the bird managed to shake the weasel free. On the balance of probabilities, this sounds a reasonable explanation. My crap detector says this was probably a genuine record of the event but because I didn’t witness the event at first hand, I only believe it to be true. I do not know it to be true. However, I do not discount the possibility that the image could be a fake. It is not important enough to lose sleep over.

    I’ll leave you with this image which has surfaced on Facebook, you’ll only need your crap detector set on low………

  20. annag1611 28 March 2015 at 7:32 pm

    … and this is my response to the WeAreOCA blog post of May, 2011, as part of the L2 Documentary course, page 81 exercise.

    Thank goodness some of the links have been removed! I pity the person who has to read all this at Christmas!

    I have found many of the responses stimulating. I have just finished reflecting on the constructed documentary images made up by Jeff Wall, Charley Murrell, Hannah Starkey, Joan Fontcuberta, Hasan & Husain Essop and Christina Middel. At this point I am asked if I want to see proof of Osama Bin Laden’s death and I have a quiet giggle. I don’t have to see something to believe or not to believe it and we all have evidence to support what we choose to believe. Nigel brought up the example of Thomas, the embodiment of doubt. The scripture, John ch 20 vv 24 -28, records the event. We all assume that Thomas actually saw the nail marks but there is nothing to say that he did – he may have said “My Lord and my God”(v 28) for very different reasons. There is nothing to state that he did subsequently believe. So we can mythologise an event and countless people follow the beliefs blindly. Some feel that pictures painted by words are more open to interpretation than photographic images, constructed or not, it may be so but that too is contested. “Photography, for better or for worse, possesses the immediate power in a way that words – too reflective – and the moving image – too animated – do not. It is a moment, freeze-framed for ever.” (the Guardian link given by Eileen) It ignores the subjective element of the photographer or the viewer and today sounds a rather quaint evocation of past perceptions.
    Peter Haveland states: So the truth (whatever that is) may be equally or better represented in fiction than fact; does it matter if the image records an incident or is constructed to represent one; even one that hasn’t happened but tells the story? (Peter Haveland 5th May 2011) Following this train of thought, if the truth that we wanted to represent here was the victory of technology, we could create an avatar, couldn’t we? The author of the Guardian, writing about the image depicting Hillary Clinton & Obama reportedly watching the killing of Bin Laden, suggests: “It is a fascinating document, for what it doesn’t show us as much as what it does. That is the often-overlooked power of great photography: to suggest rather than to shock.” I don’t need an image to make me believe one way or another, my reason and experience, although neither is absolute or infallible, do that for me & I’m willing to take the risk. Article 59 of Society of the Spectacle claims: “Under the shimmering diversions of the spectacle, banalization dominates modern society the world over” I think we have reached banalization as far as war as entertainment is concerned and I suspect, this is the reason people expect to see yet more carnage, regardless of whose body is mangled.

  21. Andreas F 17 July 2015 at 11:16 pm

    Reply to the exercise in documentary course

    It starts with the example of the pictures of Osama’s dead body, goes over a very interesting but abstract discussion of Baudrillard, Debord and more and comes to an end with a white rabbit.

    I have to admit that the white rabbit is the excellent part of it.
    Having read Baudrillard partly I have to ask: What does all of the discussion have to do with what we are living in? I formulate it a little weird as their probably is not ONE reality but depending on the person, time and so one there are several or at least reality will be seen differently from one to the other.

    Does that matter in everyday life? Not really.

    You have to be aware that what you think and see can mean something completely differnt for the next person. Looking at cognitive behavioural therapy you get just that….you have to be aware that what you see is not necessarily the same that comes to mind as it always goes through your subconsciousness and then consciousness and is interpreted depending on earlier experiences.

    Kierkegaard said it right when he described the teacher-student relationship and that the teacher first has to see where the student is, otherwise it is of no values what so ever.

    Schrödinger’s cat is another example….is the cat dead or not? Nobody knows until you watch…and the next person might get another result.

    What does that mean for my life?
    Be aware that you cannot be sure that the truth they want to “sell” you is really the truth.
    There are always two side to every story
    Try not to have prejudices.

    Does the theoretical thoughts about different realities have impact on my life. I doubt it as long as I can be mindful and living in the here and now, being aware of the fact that everything I see/hear/feel and so on has gone through a filter and interpretation before It reaches my consciousness

  22. gjcimages 25 August 2015 at 7:00 pm

    Hello everybody

    I am a fellow student following the Documentary Course, the final exercise of this section asked me to look at this blog (the first one I have ever looked at) and make my ‘own blog’-again a first.
    Well, over the last few weeks I have looked at the work of many photographers and found most of their work interesting. From looking at kids growing up on a council estate in Manchester to life on the streets of Belfast I now have to comment on the alleged death of OBL.
    Why do I say alleged? There will be some people who will not believe that he is dead until they see proof, be that an image or a DNA test result. Others would not believe a word that the US Military says even if there was proof.

    We live in an age where people just do not trust the Government, the Police, Doctors or indeed anybody in authority. They now want proof of everything – some would want proof it was raining even thought they were getting wet.

    As far back as I can remember historic events that were captured on film would need no further evidence for the event to be believed. Times have now changed and when we see stories of press photographers altering images this adds to the publics distrust.

    For those of us hoping to take pictures for a living we should remember this and work to our own standards.

    An image taken of a person in a compromising position can have a devastating effect on their career and family life. If they have been foolish then they have to face the consequences but there is no need to alter an image in the hope of showing them in a poorer light.

    In a way we are all victims of the 24 hours news culture that we live in, images are taken and transmitted within minutes , very little checking can be done to prove the authenticity of the shot.

    We have seen over that last few days what happens when images / email addresses are leaked (Ashley Madison: ‘Suicides’ over website hack)

    How long will it be before the victim of a Paparazzi type shot feels that there is no way out of a particular situation?

    I think we, as photographers, have a duty to inform the world of the pain and suffering of others. Let the world see the faces of the people who have no voice, let their story be heard. This is the type of photographer that I want to be.

    Anyway I’m off to the IVY (other restaurants are available) to try and catch a married MP with his/her boy/girl friend. These course fees still need paying.
    thank you


  23. Judy Bach 12 September 2015 at 7:33 pm

    Hello , this is my response to the WeAreOCA blog post ‘Seeing is Believing’ as required for L2 Documentary coursework. Part 3 , last exercise.

    Jose poses the question ‘Seeing is believing Or is it ? ‘

    The growth of social media and the immediacy of digital imagery has made it possible for us to watch wars unfold from the comfort of our own sitting rooms. A major downside to the proliferation of such imagery is that photographs of dead bodies and atrocities increasingly fail to repel the viewer, they have become so commonplace as to be cliched, something Anna reflects on.

    The conscious decision of the US government not to release images that corroborated beyond doubt the reported death of Osama bin Laden acknowledged ‘the power of the photograph’ (Sean O’Hagan Guardian). Hence I agree entirely with Matt James that if published the images could possibly have provoked an incendiary response from Laden’s fundamentalist followers . Jose’s remark ‘it has reminded us that photography still has documentary value after all’ is a prompt that despite the overload of images we are subjected to on a daily basis there is still a place for sensitive and thoughtful documentary reportage. Yet I also agree with Richard’s comments that no image can be completely objective , at some point a subjective choice has been made , be that a politically motivated or otherwise , decision.

    Reading the blog post brought to mind a photograph I was shown many years ago whilst still at school. A school friend had Polish parents whose relatives still lived there , when her grandmother died the family were sent a photograph of the dead grandmother in her coffin . She brought the photograph into school , we were fascinated having never seen such a picture before ! She had told us her grandmother had died , we believed her , yet she still brought this photograph in as proof of her death. At that young age it was all the additional proof we needed , yet how can I really know the body in the coffin was it was in fact her grandmother ?– I can’t and therefore I don’t need a photograph of Osama’s body as proof of his purported death.


  24. kwpeopleandplace 13 September 2015 at 5:58 pm

    My response to the above post is part of the level 2 Documentary Photography course –

    In Jose’s post he says ‘Seeing is believing. Or is it?’ in regards to the unpublished death pictures of Osama Bin Laden. The absence of visual proof of Bin Laden’s death was at the time very prominent in the mainstream press, why? Do we ever have to see any pictures of his corpse to prove that it really happened or can we trust the media which (according to Rob’s initial comment) had already broadcast false news stories during the Gulf war to outwit Iraqi intelligence. If the picture is published many people will still dispute its authenticity due to the knowledge of digital manipulation that is widespread and could easily ‘fake’ such an image. So although their is a strong desire by many people to see an image of Bin Laden’s corpse a large percentage even a majority would still debate the truth. Rob also comments about the growing mistrust of the mainstream media making it hard to believe anything that they say ‘Did Bin Laden even exist?’ he says. Good point.

    Many of the comments then continue with this lack of trust in the media Jim says ‘everyone needs to develop their own crap detector’ as the truth of some news stories with or without images are sometimes doubted. So this belief in the truth be it written, heard or seen visually in the form of a digital photograph all boils down to trust of the authorities who distribute the news. Can we trust them? I think this post and its comments have really blown up the topic of mistrust and deception in mainstream media outlets and the argument of whether a photograph is real or not almost becomes secondary to that.

    In the very interesting Slavoj Žižek interview he brings up the subject of reality of the virtual. An example he gives is in regards to Father Christmas and how parents lie to their children and the children in return pretend to believe that lie. So is the general public like the child believing in Father Christmas and do we believe the mainstream media because we have to? If we decide to believe alternate realities and conspiracy theories what can we do about it? In short nothing. So it becomes easier and less stressful just to go along with the mainstream like sheep. People would see a picture of a blood soaked Osama Bin Laden with bullet holes in him and be satisfied that it is true and for them seeing is believing, but for many more people who are starting to mistrust the mainstream media and digital imagery used in news stories a question mark will always remain.

    It is interesting to note that after this post by Jose several pictures claiming to be the dead Osama Bin Laden have been ‘leaked’ on the internet. Most of these pictures have be proven to be digitally manipulated fakes.

  25. philoca 6 February 2016 at 5:47 pm

    When considering this exercise for the Documentary module I was initially trying to remember whether or not the US Government eventually did release any images of a dead Bin Laden, in parallel to this I had no doubts to his death. So did I need to see in order to believe? obviously not, what though of the opposite scenario, how do we consider the veracity of the content of images that are presented to us?

    I believe a large amount of this depends upon the genre of the photographic practice and the channel of distribution. Seeing a large format image with a cinematic aesthetics in art gallery of an ‘event’ immediately makes us interpret the image in terms of constructed photography but when viewing an image from World Press Photo for example I believe that being truthful very few of us would have any doubts to its veracity. These are two extremes in terms of the believability of images and in the case of World Press Photo we are influenced by the fact that we know the image has been judged by reputable judging panel and that any form of material manipulation no matter how minor would be the cause of major controversy. Between these extremes there are the daily images both still and moving that are presented to us in the media. To be honest I don’t find myself doubting the veracity of any such images (unless of course they are published in something like the National Enquirer or self-released photoshopped images of celebrities). I say this in the context of them not being manipulated not in terms of their objectivity that Richard rightly comments on.
    I do have doubts though with regards to whether we are being exposed to the full truth, that is to say media organisations following their own ideologies in the selection of the images that they chose to include and exclude from their reports that they decide to publish or broadcast.

  26. selinawallace 29 March 2016 at 4:16 am

    The absence of visual proof of Bin Laden’s death dominated headlines at the time of writing, signifying the desire of the people of the world to be convinced, visually, of his death. However, the discussions in this article and comments are around why we need to actually see evidence of someone’s death (or some other event) in order to believe it. Do we or do we not need visual evidence? Of what significance is visual evidence anyway, when photographs can (and do) lie (though of course the photograph itself does not lie, it just shows what the photographer or manipulator wants it to show, and what the text alongside it anchors it to showing).
    I thought that there were many good points discussed, and some very fascinating articles linked to (which I do not have time to review now but will attempt to do so later).
    I agree with the comments about requiring both good sources (good is hard to define of course – and we all know the challenges with peer reviewed journals), and to go along with that, a keen sense of scepticism and questioning. It is something that I am particularly encouraging in my children – they already ask why? all the time, but I am encouraging a deeper study of this question to do with everything around them and what they see.
    Peter Haveland’s comments around fiction being just as useful as documentary ring in my ears as being significant: “The probability is that no documentary project, whether a single image, portfolio, film book or whatever, ever changed anyone’s mind but I suspect that it helped and reinforced opinion and perhaps even galvanised some into action; but the same may be said about committed fiction. So the truth (whatever that is) may be equally or better represented in fiction than fact; does it matter if the image records an incident or is constructed to represent one; even one that hasn’t happened but tells the story?”
    In specific response to the Bin Laden discussions, I think that Pdog19 hits the nail on the head: “I think the public would have believed what they wanted to believe and rejected what didn’t suit!” and the same can be said to be true for all photographs.

  27. hannahfountainoca 5 May 2016 at 2:28 pm

    I have always been told never to believe what you see or read in the press but saying that you do need to have some form of belief whether its well sourced material or un-edited images.

    In today’s world it is getting harder and harder to see the truth or the fiction in photography with the ever growing technology. Do I need photographic evidence to show Bin Laden’s death? No! I don’t really care if he is dead or not that fact is there is one less evil person in the world that cant destroy innocent lives any more.

    Seeing can be believing but not always. Not with the photographers creativity and technology making it possible for photo manipulation.

  28. John Walker 18 May 2016 at 1:56 pm

    In the original posting of “Seeing is Believing” Jose posed the question as to whether we should believe every thing we see without question. There have been 59 comments so far about this subject. One of the comments which swayed be most in this diatribe was the fact that film and digital images are not permissible as evidence in a court of law. This is due to their being so easily altered. I have always held the view that images should be real and true and the message or content should not be altered to give a false impression. Rob is quite right that presupposition plays a part in believing (5.5.11).
    When I heard Bin Laden had been shot I presupposed that the Americans would not falsify the news as this could be disproved by future events such as Bin Laden being seen in public. Any falsified photographic evidence would have backfires on the USA and the risk would outweigh the benefit. This is were the development of a crap detector (examining and learning from cognitive dissonance) is so important to the astute observer of the items served up by the media.
    Sometimes though, the important message needs to be told and to get this truth out into the world fiction is utilised. As long as the crap detector is able to pick this up it may be worth it to make a strong point. (I think this is a point Peter Haveland makes (5.5.11). Unfortunately it is easy to step over the line to propagandise ones own belief which may only be based on blind faith (perhaps in the field of religion. curriehannah 29.5.14)
    mattjamesphotos 29.5.14 suggests our crap detectors need to be strong enough to not only smell out altered photographic evidence but also the reporting of “facts such as DNA, fingerprints and voice recognition. If the media can put out news reports giving false reports of the positions of troops in Middle East conflicts to confuse the rebel side, what other reports are “altered” to make a political point. Man your crap detectors.

  29. Jane 26 May 2016 at 10:53 am

    I admit at the time of the press coverage, I was struck by the fact that the US did not publish a confirmation image. Part of me decided that this was because it really isn’t appropriate to show the possibly mutilated body of someone even if that person is someone many people might vilify. Two reasons; the first that this might be “gruesome” and therefore not fit for general viewing (whatever that means) and secondly because an image like this might indeed incite further violence or revenge. A more skeptical part of my brain wondered if in fact they had actually killed Bin laden or not? – perhaps they weren’t sure and therefore couldn’t risk showing an image. When I reflected on this I was struck by two things: a) my apparent initial need for “evidence” b) my realisation that even if they showed me the image – how would I really know it was the real Bin Laden. After all the only “proof” I have are other photos which could equally be false. This sense of unease was reinforced when I viewed the images created by Fontcuberta in which he inserts himself as Bin Laden. If I had not read the post and just seen on of these images – would I have realised?

    Eileen points us to an article in the Guardian discussing the topic of the missing confirmation photo. Sean O’Hagan the author comments that ” President Obama’s decision not to release images of Osama bin Laden’s corpse, and the heated debate it has engendered, speaks volumes about the continuing power of the photograph even in a time when we are overwhelmed by digital images of every hue, from the mundane to the ultra-explicit.”. At the time, Obama was given to believe that a photograph has the power to incite emotions such as hatred and violence. There is also the idea that an image can provide much needed emotional comfort from a confirmation of an act. He also argues that Obama believed that the release would have acted “as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool..”. Sean O’Hagan also points to the image that was released – that of Hilary Clinton and Obama apparently watching the death. Their faces reflected shock and horror versus any sort of satisfaction or gloating which confirmed Obama’s desire that the US be seen as being above this “That’s not who we are..”. This image is used to reinforce that.

    Why are photos so powerful? I think this is partly due to the idea that the camera doesn’t lie but importantly also due to the way we are psychologically wired. NMonckton in his comment on the blog also reflects on this. We are programmed to base our initial assessments and judgements on what we see – 70 to 80% of first impressions rely on appearance for example. We are taught that this can lead to very strong biases e.g. in interviews but how often do we reflect on this when we see a photograph? This in built assessment facility is however, also the key to our survival and has proved reliable most of the time. However, it is a potential weakness too and one that can be manipulated. Salkeld (2004, p74) argues that “the recognition that photographs can be so powerful is an open invitation to exploit their capacity to affect the viewer and the course of events.” (Salkeld 2014, p74). He asserts that much of what we see in the media is therefore a “performance enacted to be represented”. It can range from a terrorist image to the choice of clothes worn by a politician for the camera. When we view an image we should therefore consider the possibility that either the image itself has been manipulated (“a practice as old as the medium of photography itself” (Salkeld, p 85)) or that we are being manipulated by the image. There are many examples of manipulated images that are well known – Eileen reminds us of the image of the control room printed in Der Tzitung from which Hilary was actually removed because she is a woman. The book “Pictures on a Page (Evans, 1978)” is full of examples of the creative use of a crop to tell perhaps a very different story than that told by the whole image. According to the BJP “Twenty percent of the images in the penultimate round of World Press Photo 2015 were disqualified because they were manipulated”. These were images actually submitted under strict rules so we should wonder what percentage of the images we see everyday are “real”. One judge was quoted in the New York Times as saying “Many of the images we had to disqualify were pictures we all believed in”.

    So my conclusion? If the image in front of us does not appear to pose an immediate danger based on our initial assessment, then it might pay to pause and consider what we are really looking at. Seeing should not always equate to believing.


    Evans, H (1978), Pictures on a Page, London, Heinemann Professional Publishing

    Salkeld, R. (2014), Reading Photographs, London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

    New York Times on line available on accessed 26 May 2016

    Petapixel Website available on accessed 26 May 2016

    Smythe, D (2015), Image manipulation hits World Press Photo published in British Journal available on line accessed 26 May 2016

    Hagan, S. (2011), Osama bin Laden’s body: the world’s most incendiary image, published in the Guardian on line, available on accessed 26 May 2016

  30. Rob Townsend 4 August 2016 at 10:30 am

    As per the last several responses above, I am doing this as a response to an exercise on the Documentary course. Providing the 62nd comment is double-edged: I have the blessing of reading the thoughts of others in advance, and the curse of finding some new insight I can add…

    Various new threads emerged during the discussion and I will attempt to unpack the pertinent ones here.

    – Regarding the calls for the killing to be confirmed by photographic evidence:

    This perhaps speaks to an unhealthy level of paranoia in the west at the time, as it is essentially a conspiracy theory that gained a surprising amount of mainstream attention – after all, under what circumstances is it considered normal to show a dead body to the public to prove death?

    In this instance I think the need for proof was tied up with the general mystique that surrounded the reclusive terrorist leader, including the scepticism and over-analysis that had already met photographs and videos of the man.

    However, the underlying point of the demand for a photograph is the primacy of vision as a cognitive sense: people generally trust photographs – seeing really does tend to be believing in most cases. Photographs have this power due to their indexical nature. The flaw in this is covered below.

    – Regarding the US government’s refusal to release such images:

    Again this speaks to the power of photography but in a different way. President Obama put his finger on it when he said “It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool.” (Guardian 2011)

    – Regarding the release of the ‘reaction shots’ to illustrate the story:

    In the circumstances this was a clever move. Having decided not to show the act or the aftermath, this sober reaction, especially from a visibly shocked Hillary Clinton, gave the viewer a sense of being an insider – and to many (not all) people would have sufficed as ‘evidence’ that the act had taken place.

    – Regarding the faith placed in the veracity of photography:

    Fontcuberta and a thousand others have shown that the camera really does lie, and seeing really shouldn’t be believing. As pointed out by other posters, it’s hugely ironic that a photo that is tangentially involved in a discussion of photographic credibility has been manipulated by a particular news outlet to remove Hillary Clinton (PetaPixel 2011).

    The fact that something as supposedly indexical as photography can be untrustworthy is highly problematic. At one extreme it allows unscrupulous parties to manipulate situations by damaging but plausible fakery, and at the other it allows paranoid conspiracy theorists to deny the veracity of any photograph.

    – Regarding manipulation in photojournalism:

    As David Campbell said, it’s important not to conflate processing with manipulation – it’s about the intent to deceive (New York Times 2015). The problem is, of course, where to draw the line. As useful as it is for photojournalism contest juries to hold photographers to high standards, who is doing this for everyday photojournalism?

    – Regarding the subjectivity of belief:

    As Stan Dickinson says early in the thread, “truth lies in beholding, not portraying”. People tend to believe what they want to believe. Those who always trusted that bin Laden was killed will not need to see a photograph; those who doubted it can reject any photographic evidence as faked.

    – Summary:

    After looking at documentary photography from the point of view of the photographer for the last little while, and ruminating on issues such as reflexivity, subjectivity and authorship, it’s been interesting to flip the discussion over to the viewer’s side.

    To a significant degree, the photographer can influence what the viewer believes regarding the ‘truth’ of a situation, but at the end of the day the viewer brings their own reflexivity and subjectivity, and indeed if you follow the Barthesian model, their own authorship to reading an image. For documentary photography one would presume that in the vast majority of cases the intention is for the two beliefs to match, such is the trust placed (sometimes misplaced) in photography…

  31. Sarah507820 15 November 2016 at 9:27 am

    Like the majority of responses to the post I find myself questioning whether we believe what we see especially in this day and age. Like Pdog19, I question the US government’s decision not to publish the images of Bin Laden’s corpse. Without these, they are asking us all to take their word for it that the man is actually dead. I felt that was a big ask at the time. However, as time has gone by it becomes more believable.

    But how reliable would an image of the dead Bin Laden be? In this digital age of photography we are all too aware of how easy it is to manipulate images. As Amano points out ‘Gory images of a blood stained probably hard to identify body are unlikely to furnish proof’. Could we trust any image that would be published? We all know about the role of the photographer in the making of an image…

    I feel that Seeing is believing brings us back to the old adage – the camera never lies. The time when we put faith in the photographic image is long gone. I feel that in this situation that people would believe what they wanted to believe no matter what evidence was provided to them. Supporters can believe he is dead to further their cause as can those that believe in the government. In between there is plenty of room for the conspiracy theorists to work.

  32. Jan Fairburn 12 April 2017 at 7:53 pm


    Am here due to documentary exercise…sad that some of the links are dead, I wanted to find out about Banksy…however I did manage to do independent research on some of the points made; my mind has been well and truly blown!

    To comment on some of the original posts made back in 2011, especially the banter, is going to be tricky…just posting some well thought out educational comment seems dry…but here goes my response…

    Is seeing believing? No. Can I leave it at that? Guess not…

    There are too many examples of faked images from the very beginning of photography being used as a serious documentary medium to blindly accept everything you see: Roger Fenton’s moved cannon balls, Alexander Gardener and Matthew Brady in the US civil war moving bodies etc, the Associated Press announcing that it had cut ties with award-winning combat photographer Narciso Contreras after the journalist used Photoshop to doctor an image he’d taken of combat in Syria, Gladys Cockburn-Lange, the supposed widow of a deceased British photographer and flier, made public, in 1933 some shots supposedly taken over the Western Front, a German plane can be seen breaking apart in mid-air, while another photo shows an enemy pilot leaping to certain death from his flaming fighter. It wasn’t until the 1980s that an investigator with the Smithsonian Institute concluded that the pictures were faked using models, and not to mention the famous Iwo Jima shot…

    Many of the images, if not all, were originally taken on face value. Apart from a few, the photographs were documenting actual events, some were slightly manipulated, some more so and others a total lie.

    this link gives a few more recent examples too

    All of those even without getting into the realms of staged documentary…

    Fake photographs, fake news which brings me onto Donald Trump

    and even when the images have not been tampered with there is always the matter of angle…

    So no, I don’t think seeing is believing at all. As Jane pointed out:-

    Salkeld (2004, p74) argues that “the recognition that photographs can be so powerful is an open invitation to exploit their capacity to affect the viewer and the course of events.”

  33. Veronica Worrall 19 April 2017 at 12:59 pm

    I am to make the 65th comment on Jose’s blog started in 2011 at the time Bin Laden was killed by the USA and photographs had not been publicised as evidence. Jose questions ” seeing is believing or is it?”
    Since 2011 there has been many occasions where we have had to employ our own personal powers of reasoning to decided if what we hear or read or see in the media is reality. For me it is difficult to imagine people continue to believe that a photograph cannot be changed or even taken from a biased perspective but we have only to think back to big red bus in June 2014 with the words 350 million for NHS to realise how ‘facts’ can be distorted but still believed

    This puts a terrific responsibility on individuals and on us in our world of photography to find our route through an ethical quagmire. Jan (response 12. 4.17) has given us references to a range of ‘fake’ photographs across the past century. The media pressure for sensational has always been there but now the ease manipulation can be achieved in images by so many makes it more important that established photographers have integrity. I go along with the point about photography made by Peter Haveland (response 5.5.2011) when he discussed that we know photography is subjective but be honest about its subjectivity.

    The question raised about the more general concept ‘is seeing believing?’ Jane (response 26.5.16) discusses ‘why are photographs so powerful?’ with insight. But this is also answered by the master himself, Ansel Adams, ‘Photography, as a powerful medium of expression and communications, offers an infinite variety of perception, interpretation and execution’. There is the an answer. Photography can be what you want it to be. The viewer does have ultimate control of what they believe but we are learning ways photographers can influence. Viewer beware!

    ps Jose 5.5.11) Guy Dubord’s book is on the way

  34. Malcolm 3 May 2017 at 1:17 pm

    I am writing here in response to the Documentary exercise and have just read through the ever growing list of responses, some 63 comments, 23 pages plus links (many of which are now not working).

    The subject heading is entitled ‘Seeing is Believing’ and it’s now six years to the day since the original post, which talks to the lack of photographic evidence ‘visual proof’ of Osama Bin Laden’s death and how it still dominates the BBC News website.

    Today ‘Fake news’ is a favourite saying of US President, Donald Trump, but only of course when it portrays him in a poor light; however it’s interesting to note how this type of language and questioning of images/reporting of events pervades our environment today. 50 years ago photographs, news reports, TV and film footage where accepted as truth, or certainly with little questioning and some people even believe man landed on the moon.

    Back to the subject at hand, what would be the unequivocal evidence, that the general public would require as proof of Bin Laden’s death? I would not imagine a photograph would full fill this criteria any more than written accounts or video, perhaps DNA evidence but again this could be questioned/discredited. All things being equal, without bearing witness to an event in person can we ever truely know or believe an event took place and in the way it was described.

    One of the quotes I came across early on in my photography studies was that “Trusting the photograph was probably a huge mistake from the beginning” Aurthur C Danto and it had the most profound impact on my thinking about the photographic image. True that many others such as Barthes and Sontag to name a few that have gone into great depth on and around this topic, but Danto’s single succinct statement to me has most meaning.

    So can the statement ‘seeing is believing’ ever be accurate, especially about a photograph, as so many other senses are deprived by the framed, static, two dimensional image. Or are we programmed to be so visually biased that we struggle to tell the difference and if, as they say, perception is truth, then truth is not an singular irrefutable data point but a state of mind.

    Then again, is that not what ‘seeing is believing’ saying in the first place, belief is often based on little or no evidence what-so-ever.

  35. Anne Bryson 4 May 2017 at 2:53 pm

    Like the last 18 respondents, my reason for dipping into this discussion is in response to the exercise on page 82 of level 2 Documentary Photography, part 3. 6 years down the line from this discussion being posted means that this is now old news and 66 responses before me leaves me with little new to say.

    The original question posed by Jose was that in the absence of photographic evidence, can we really believe that Bin Landen is actually dead. Varies people have opined that either it would not be appropriate to publish blood stained, mutilated bodies, or that the US government couldn’t make this up for fear of Bin Laden appearing at some later date, or that they didn’t really care as long as the world is rid of this evil (human?) being. The passage of time almost certainly means that Bin Lade is dead even if we have not seen his body but another option at the time might have been that he had faked the news himself so that he could take the pressure off and still continue is evil work.

    What does intrigue me is that for most of this chapter I have been studying photographers who’s practice is to include fiction into their photographs; Tom Hunter, Jeff Wall, the Essop twins, Hannah Starkey and Charley Murrell and we are asked to believe their work and accept it as ‘documentary’ photography, yet it seems to me that the opposite is being asked of us here; no documentary evidence at all, and yet we do believe it.

    I could see parallels in Nigel and Rob’s discussion about visual clues in relation to religion. There are those who believe that the world was created in 6 days and those who follow the scientific, evolution based theory and who is to say who is right. So can we believe what we see? I think sometimes it is down to judgement, the context and on what other evidence there is to back whatever is it up. I found some of the photographers’ work I have viewed over the last few weeks quite believable but others far less so.

    There were two things from this discussion that appealed to my sense of humour and they were Stan’s ‘crap detector’ and Cedric’s ‘white rabbit’ story. It’s good to know that some of us have their feet firmly on the ground!

  36. ChrisC 5 January 2018 at 11:27 am

    Page 82 of the documentary course asks us to reflect on the question ‘seeing is believing – or is it?’

    I don’t think anyone could have gotten this far in the documentary course and still think that the photograph is the pinacle of truth. There are far too many example of images that have used selective angles and crops, or have been doctored or staged, even from the very beginning of photography. As said by kwpeopleandplace, if a photograph was released at the time, there would still be people who would choose not to believe it.

    richard506896 said that an image may make more people believe in the statement that Bin Laden had been killed, but wouldn’t make people know that fact for a certainty. I thought this was an accurate statement to make, because even if a photograph were released, it wouldn’t constitute proof in and of itself.

    Belief, as far as I’m concerned, is the result of several corroborating pieces of evidence. This many years after the report of his death, and with no picture released, the most conclusive evidence is the absence of rhetoric from Bin Laden himself. The hypothetical release of an image from the US Government in the future would simply strengthen the current evidence; in other words I think a photograph in this case becomes better proof as more time goes on.

    Personally, I think the believability of a picture has more to do with the viewer than the photographer. Even with today’s abundance of visual manipulation to varying degrees, the general public, especially those not ‘trained’ in visual literacy, take images at face value, which is why visual advertising works so well.

    Expanding a little on what Philoca said about the presentation of the photograph, I think this certainly has an impact on my own judgement on how truthful something is. The location of display, the aesthetics of the image and who released the image all comes into play. Rightly or wrongly, I’m more inclined to believe in the truth of an image released by the US Government, if for no other reason than it’s surely a huge risk to release a fake image that can spread over the globe and be scrutinised by millions of people within minutes.

    As time goes on, and cameras and editing software become more and more sophisticated, I think that photography will gradually move on from any suggestion of being objective, and will become more dominated by people making a statement through fiction or part-fiction. ‘Obvious’ fiction, like that by Charley Murrell doesn’t attempt to deceive the viewer, but instead bring them onboard with the subjectivity, while dealing with an important and thought-provoking topic.

  37. David Fletcher 11 February 2018 at 7:23 pm

    The original blog post referred to was about the killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces on the 2nd May 2011, in particular the fact that the US government had decided not to release any photographs of the operation. The author of the post, documentary photographer and OCA tutor, Jose Navarro, observes that the paradox of this non-availaibilty is the assumption that, if published, such photographs would provide evidence of the occurrence of the event: “photography still has documentary value after all”, he says. 

    Looking at the current state of the blog post, it is very much divided into two halves: an initial discussion within a week or so of the original post; and a series of comments from students dutifully carrying out the requirements of the exercise in the Documentary course (p81 of the version I am working from, PH2doc050213). The first series of posts diverge rapidly from the original issue as I perceive it: the evidential value of a photograph in the public domain. The student comments come much later at sporadic intervals from 2014 to date. I have read all these comments but I will restrict my analysis to the original series of posts – not out of any disrespect of the later views but in the interests of focusing on the original issue.

    Baudrillard’s essay The Gulf War Did Not Take Place is the third of a series of essays which is more about the nature of war and its representation in the media than about the documentary nature of photography: Baudrillard does not assert what the title suggests. Granted it does concern the manipulation of public perception but this is an issue of journalism in general rather than photography in particular. Jose himself heads off into further philosophical depths with Zizek’s The Reality of the Virtual which concerns the nature of reality itself. This prompts further speculation on the reality of the killing of Bin Laden and even the existence of Bin Laden himself.

    But let us not forget that this is a photography course. I see Jose’s original post as more about the indexical nature of a photograph than the nature of reality. Indeed, Jose’s concluding point is the way the public desire to see a photograph of the killing is a reverse validation of the documentary value of the photograph.

    I can see another motive for this desire: revenge. There is no doubt an appetite among many for an image of the bloodied corpse of Bin Laden as a form of natural justice for the killing done at his behest. In this scenario the satisfaction obtained from seeing such an image outweighs any consideration of the veracity of the events depicted. People want to believe it is true.

    Belief is another important word here. The title of the post is Seeing is Believing, not Seeing is Reality. So the issue shifts from whether a photograph is indexical to whether it can convince the viewer that it represents the real. This is where the photographers  mentioned in Jose’s post – Fontcuberta and Meyer – play with the viewer’s preconceptions. What they demonstrate is the importance of context: the viewer must be able to discriminate between a satirical juxtaposition and and a serious news presentation of images. Hence the current determination of the major photographic agencies to prohibit the slightest manipulation of images from their contributing photographers.

    The debate as to whether we believe something really happened is not just about photography – there have always conspiracy theories, and the internet has allowed them to multiply. The photographs for the Apollo moon landings provide an interesting corollary to the absence of the Bin Laden photographs. The moon photographs were not accepted as proof by conspiracy theorists even though they predate the oft-cited undermining of photographic indexicality by the digital revolution.

    However there is a danger that the debate over the documentary value of photographs is being sidelined by a more recent development: so-called “alternative facts”. Photographs of Donald Trump’s inauguration clearly contradict his claims on the numbers of attendees. Trump’s supporters do not disbelieve the photographs, they simply choose to ignore them and believe what they are told by their leader. The conspiracy theories have become mainstream and the previously-trusted news outlets are condemned as “failing” purveyors of “fake news”. 

    I would argue that it is the restoration of the trusted reputation of the contexts in which photographs are published which should be one of our main concerns as documentary photographers today.

  38. Anonymous 17 March 2018 at 6:47 pm

    Since starting this degree course on photography, I’ve not agreed with the opinion that ‘a photograph is worth a thousand words’ or in the ‘reality’ offered by a photograph. Let’s face it, we all know that an image is only the interpretation of the person making the image of what they want us to see. So, particularly after this last section in the ‘Documentary’ course about ‘Performance and Fictions’, I’m not entirely convinced anymore that as a ‘Documentary Photographer’ I can actually say that a photograph is any good at all as documentary evidence!
    If one looks at the painstaking effort that Jeff Wall puts into his recreations, not to mention the money, man hours and effort, and this from a private individual, what more could a government do with all its resources, finance to create and get themselves out of a sticky hole?
    The fact that Jose posed this question, and then some very erudite thinking and writing has expounded upon the subject in the comments that followed without providing a clear cut conclusion as to the veracity of images a ‘proof’, means that perhaps only his body in the flesh, so to speak, in front of a large, cross-sectional jury of witnesses with scientifically produced DNA results, proving it was Bin Laden would be the ultimate convincing proof. Even then, given the lies and deceits that are perpetrated by governments across the entire world, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to then still be unconvinced.
    Conviction of the truth in this case can be likened to the way currency works. It’s now accepted pretty much anywhere in the world that the almighty DOLLAR is a paper money that can be relied upon. But unless a great majority of people involved actually believe that the small piece of paper is reallyworth anything, then it’s all a fiction that comes tumbling down, pretty much as the Rouble did when the USSR ceased to exist and confidence in that currency vanished, it became worthless. Have we now reached that same point with imagery?

  39. keithharness 5 June 2018 at 11:00 am

    Reading both this text entitled “seeing is believing and the ever growing list of comments on this subject, some 7 after this post was written. Talks about the lack of evidence following the death of Bin Laden and how this dominated the news foe quite some time.
    “Fake news” in general has become ever more popular since the American Election has become even more well know in its use during both speeches and posts made by the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, but seminly only of course when he is seen in poor light.
    However its interesting to note how this has become ever more popular in the language of many questioning the the images and reports being shown on TV, when both photographs and films alike were sen as being the truth, with little questioning of their credibility

  40. alanphoto 26 July 2018 at 5:30 pm

    Alan D Horn 515733
    Photography 2 Documentary

    Seeing is Believing

    Read the WeAreOCA blog post “Seeing is Believing”
    Read all the replies to it and write your own comment, both on the blog page and in your own blog. Make sure that you visit all the links on the blog page. Base your opinion on solid argument and, if you can, refer to other contributions to the blog.

    Having looked at all the comments, conversations and diversions, especially Slavoj Zizek which is hard work but eventually rewarding. I would say that it is a video to put on when guests are overstaying their welcome. Not a criticism of the content but it takes time to absorb.

    However, my more recent reading leads me to another way of looking at “Seeing is Believing” and that is looking at the reality of conflict – the underlying reasons why conflicts happen and why they don’t.

    Tim Marshall’s best seller “Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics” is a factual review of the worlds geography and its fundamental effect on political thinking, conflict and potential conflict. It allows us to take a step back and think about the geopolitical reality of world conflict, thus allowing us to develop our reasoning from solid ground rather than a variety of opinions.

    He clarifies that the Russians support Assad (despite his brutality) solely because Russia has a naval fleet based in Syria which is warm water with access to the Atlantic through the Mediterranean rather than the perils of the Baltic in winter. This makes clear sense as does the continuous and age- old conflict between India and China who dispute many geographic areas but have refrained from all out conflict, mainly because the seemingly insurmountable logistics of the world’s highest mountain range lies between them.

    So, the “believing” part can be easier to rationalise without the “seeing” if we start at the lowest “base camp” – pardon the pun!

    We accept that many people follow a religion although there is absolutely no proof of the powers the leaders apparently possessed – only hearsay written down (often) many years after the so-called event. Yet without seeing, the followers believe.

    The above comments in mind, we have to make our own decisions about whether something is fact or fiction – news or “fake news”.


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