Privilege flourishes in the belief of the apolitical. This maxim is reflected in society’s default assumptions that are apparently immune from scrutiny. For instance, gender: Why is my daughter regularly referred to by “he” when the speaker has no information either way? Why do I still, though I am trying not to, refer to her toys as “he” more than not? Whether it’s skin-color, or race; default sexuality, religious belief, these defaults are agreed upon (or implicitly agreed upon) as the result of conflict, historically violent, but can be changed through painstaking debates or even the turning over of generations.
In this light, an aspect of recent news merits re-evaluation. Photographs and videos: The default assumption is that these reflect reality. Everyday, we stake a lot based on the presumed reality represented in these media. I thus found myself deeply troubled by the Trump administration’s flagrant and insidious use of a doctored video as propaganda just last week. This video, and the allegation associated with it, provided the administration with grounds for silencing a dissenting voice. It is also an indirect attack on the #MeToo movement, a movement fighting the default that women who come forward with their abuse are not to be believed. It co-opts this language while challenging supporters to acknowledge and decry a false allegation of abuse - supporting the alleged abuser over the alleged victim. (To my knowledge, the victim has not personally spoken her accusation, an accusation that was made on her behalf.) This attack could only be successful because the of the underlying belief that photographs and videos are apolitical. However, if videos are political, not just in their framing or context, but, as I will argue, in their material (the recording devices) and existence, then the reality videos depict has always been the debate, whether we realized it or no.
Throughout history, our images have been influenced by our beliefs about the world, and likewise our beliefs about the world are influenced by our images. In the 15th century, the Universe was assumed to be finite, with the Earth at the center of concentric, glass, heavenly spheres. When artists began experimenting with perspective drawing, placing a point at infinity where all lines must converge, they experienced a contradiction. The solution was to hide that point by placing obstacles in front of it, especially religious ones, reminding the viewer that the infinite, if it exists, is god’s domain and not ours. In the painting below - The Ideal City - reproduced and described by David Wooton, the vanishing point is hidden behind a slightly ajar temple door, inviting the viewer to explore the infinite through the safe confines of an enclosed, religious space.
It’s been noted before that a photograph or video reflects choices about framing and focus, highlighting particular aspects of a scene, and that these choices can reflect the priorities of the society in which they are created. But society’s influence can be found on an even more fundamental level. A photograph is a particular material representation of reality. To construct it, light is moved by lenses and recorded by its effect either on film or on digital media. We see that light projected back to our eyes either from paper or screen, and we presumptuously assume that, had we been looking from that very spot at the very time the picture was taken, we would have seen the world in the exact same way. If we have an eerie sense, when taking a picture ourselves, that the image doesn’t quite capture this or that, that sense is obliterated with time as the image supplants the experience in our memory due to our belief that it better reflects reality.
From its early days, mass-market photography reflected the political environment in which it was developed. Those in power defined - and those who benefited from that power allowed to be defined - beauty as Whiteness, and so the color balance for which film was optimized prioritized making White faces clear, while under-resolving the faces of People of Color. Digital photography isn’t immune to this claim, either. To reconstruct an image from an array of pixels, image compression algorithms are built into the camera. A standard test image for these methods of image compression is a nude photograph of a Playboy model, Lenna, perpetuating this particular form of beauty.
What do we gain by holding on to the belief that photography is an apolitical, objective representation of reality? We gain the ability, for instance, to use them as unimpeachable evidence in court, in helping society identify its transgressors. This is an inherently political use! We start, first, with the question of what society we would like - e.g., one in which there is a clear hierarchy of people, with cis-white men at the top - and we bend reality until it is so. If we are in power, then our vision of reality prevails.
How do we escape the cycle without being driven to madness? I have no clear answer to that as, I fear, I may already be going mad. The Strong Programme in the history of science asks us to evaluate how ideas, especially ones we think are ‘correct,’ may be socially constructed. Why, for instance, do we believe that a photograph reflects reality? Why do we ignore the many transformations an image must go through between scene and eye? We are conditioned to view these images as more reflective of reality than, say, oil paintings. This conditioning prevents us from interrogating the mechanisms that produce this material representation, and therefore the assumptions that underlie it and the powers that might benefit from it.
If I take any solace from this interrogation, it is in the reminder of what, precisely, is at stake. It isn’t a particular video or account of events, but rather every video and account of events. The Trump administration isn’t sowing confusion over an objective, apolitical reality. Everything is political. So we shouldn’t be exasperated from the debate and walk away, denouncing the ‘other side’ as having forsaken reality. And we shouldn’t be so confident that our reality can be the only reality. The fight has always been over reality. And reality is something worth fighting over.
Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes
The Invention of Science, David Wooton. Chapter 5.2-5.4 (pgs 164-179).