Trust in Photographs

In November 1895, The Evening News published a story which read: “photographers will tell you that the camera cannot lie. This only proves that they can, for the dry plate can fib as badly as the canvas.” Penned almost 130 years ago, these words are considered one of the earliest written records of something close to the phrase “the camera never lies,” words we still hear today. It stems from a perception that the lens captures the facts before our eyes – from summer holiday snapshots to newspaper spreads – much more accurately than any drawing, written or verbal account ever can. But is this really the case?

This question is at the heart of Sainsbury Centre’s provocative new exhibition that includes 100 works by masters of the medium, from Dorothea Lange’s (1895-1965) bleak records of the Great Depression to Richard Mosse’s (b. 1980) infrared shots of the Amazon rainforest. Each piece has a story to tell about the power of photography to influence – and distort – our interpretation of major global events. One such image that has long sparked heated debate is Robert Capa’s (1913-1954) The Falling Solider (1936), which freezes the tragic moment a man was killed during the Spanish Civil War. The image has attracted controversy due to a lack of information from Capa and Professor José Manuel Susperregui’s 2009 discovery that the photojournalist was far away from the front lines. Almost 80 years later, Max Pinckers (b. 1988) and Sam Weerdmeester (b. 1984) posed these questions in the piece Controversy (2017). 

Today, we are generally aware that pictures are very different from lived reality. Instagram and TikTok filters, Photoshop and Facetune are commonplace. There are the ever-mounting problems raised by generative AI, where believable pictures are easy to forge. This exhibition speaks to our times and shows, as Director Dr Jago Cooper reflects, “the photograph is now synonymous with memory.” All in all, it reiterates that, more than ever, we should question the trust we place in subjective technologies.

Sainsbury Centre, The Camera Never Lies | Until 20 October

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Richard Mosse, Poison Glen, (2012) © Richard Mosse.
  2. Time Taken 2, High Summer, (2013-2014) © Simon Norfolk