Sunday, April 8, 2012

Believing Is Seeing by Errol Morris

Errol Morris investigates the stories behind some famous documentary photographs, questioning whether iconic images were staged or had their subjects tampered with. If so, does that matter? Also of interest to Morris is how viewers interpret the images we see in photos, especially when paired with a photo caption.

For example, there is a photo of a toy Mickey Mouse lying amid rubble from bombed-out apartments in Lebanon, taken during the Israeli-Lebanese war in 2006. (The image can be seen online here.) Do we assume that children died as a direct result of the bombing when we see this? Does knowing that the residential area was a rebel stronghold affect how we react to the photo? Does Mickey Mouse bring up the spectre of American politics and influence in the Middle East? There are a number of war documentary photos (from different sources) with a similar composition: a toy in the foreground with gray rubble behind. Were they staged? What message remains with us after seeing these photos?

The way our senses perceive information may be influenced by preconceptions. Norwood Russell Hanson's work along these lines, as well as that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, is touched upon in Believing Is Seeing. A reproduction of Wittgenstein's rabbit-duck profile from Philosophical Investigations took me on an unexpected tangent. I had to have another look at Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld's picture book Duck! Rabbit! after that.

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