#3 in a series of background briefs

Why there is TCQ

TCQ was created to resolve the photography world’s 40-year search for the “Holy Grail”—

— that is, the quest for a confident response to public skepticism about photographs in the digital age.

  • 1. The cause
    Unintended consequences
    (or, “Be careful what you wish for”)


    Not long after photography was invented in the 1830s, photographers around the world began expressing a shared wish:

    “I wish I could manipulate photographs without the viewer discovering that I had done so!”

    For almost 150 years, that wish remained largely an impossible dream. Anything trickier than limited darkroom changes typically required the services of a skilled “retoucher” — and even then the results could usually be detected upon close inspection.

    But in the 1980s digital technology started making it feel possible to make almost any photograph look like almost anything.

    Unfortunately, there was a major casualty.

    Once manipulations were undetectable, viewers were no longer able to tell how much they could trust a photograph “just by looking” at it.

    There was no longer any reliable connection between “trustworthiness” and “appearance.”

    And once that happened, photography’s prized association with believability largely evaporated.

    It turned out that what most photographers had initially regarded as a dream come true had come at a huge cost.

    The lesson learned?

    Photographers cannot have it both ways. They cannot “do anything they want” to a photograph and then expect viewers to trust it.

    And that “limitless capability” that photographers had desired for a century and a half?

    It ended up negating the reason that many of them had become photographers in the first place: to have viewers believe what the photographer is telling them.

    There was a widespread sense that “digital” had killed the goose that laid golden eggs.

  • 2. The effect
    A weak response


    The world’s most universal language (photography) is still unprepared to deal with one of the biggest concerns of our time (trustworthiness).

    The photography world has never effectively addressed the public’s skepticism, despite four decades of increasing awareness of the cause.

    By the early 2020s, the situation looked like this:

    • Most “trust-oriented” content providers had no up-to-date guidelines to refer to

    • There was no convenient way for photographers to tell viewers when “trustworthiness” had been optimized instead of “appearance” (see this brief on that choice)

    • The public had no consistent means of deciding which non-news photos could be trusted (and indeed no idea what to even look for)


    So — referring to the bottom of #1 above — should anyone worry that the “golden goose” is on life support?

    No. There’s no cause for panic; the solutions are out there.

    What many people regard as photography’s “golden eggs” (that is, highly trustworthy photographs) are still being created. They’re just harder to find without help.

    That’s where TCQ enters the picture.

  • 3. The solution
    “The one thing Photoshop will never be able to do”


    It’s tempting to think that digital technology can do anything.

    But it can’t.

    The reality is that there remains one thing that no photographic technology will ever be able to do, neither in Photoshop nor on any smartphone: Make a photograph more of an undoctored record than it already is.

    Interestingly, that “one thing” matters a lot to viewers: how much people trust a photograph often depends on whether or not they believe it is undoctored.

    That simple realization — “the undoctored photograph is key to trustworthiness” — provides the answer to four big questions:

    1. What should content-providers provide when trying to win their audience’s trust?

    2. How can many photographers recover the things that caused them to pick up a camera in the first place?

    3. What’s one thing viewers should look for when seeking trustworthy photographs?

    4. Which photographs should TCQ help to identify?


    Note that undoctored photographs — and thus TCQ — are not suited to some large segments of the photography world (which is why photographers who have no need for TCQ can easily ignore it).

    Note too that on this website “Photoshopped” is never used as a synonym for doctored photographs, nor is “Photoshop” used as a verb; see the Key entry for more.

  • 4. The future
    TCQ was created for how photography will be


    Nothing is guaranteed about the future, but most observers would agree that some things about photography’s future are quite certain (see The Logic of TCQ for a list).

    So does TCQ expect to end the 40 years of public skepticism about photographs in the digital age?

    No, that has never been a goal. From the moment that that skepticism started developing four decades ago, it was clear that it is here to stay (see #1 on the “Logic” page linked just above).

    Instead, TCQ treats that skepticism as a healthy thing. It’s the only sure way for viewers to avoid getting fooled by digital technology’s capability to make things appear to be something they are not.

    TCQ actually encourages the public to remain skeptical:

    Outside of news settings, viewers can assume that impressive photographs are “Doctored unless labeled otherwise”—

    . . . now that the “Guaranteed TCQ” label makes it easy to identify exceptions to that assumption.



















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