#8 in a series of background briefs

For the “record”

Building on 21st-century attitudes toward photographs

  • 1. How are public attitudes about photographs different in the 21st century than in the 19th and 20th centuries?

    There are numerous differences — many of which have to do with the proliferation of photographs in the digital age — but from a “trustworthiness” perspective, the biggest change is this:

    • In the 19th and 20th centuries,
    many people believed that photographs were either (1) objective “facts” or (2) contrived “fictions.”

    • In the 21st century, the public sees photographs in a new way: as much more “subjective.” Photographs are now generally regarded not as objective “facts” but rather as individual photographers’ personal interpretations, each one a unique record (“Look where I was and what I saw!”) that in many cases can be plenty trustworthy.

  • 2. What is meant by the term “record”?

    The term “record” simply refers to “what was recorded.”

    “Records” — that is, recordings of things — have played an important role throughout human history, from the cave paintings done tens of thousands of years ago, to the rendering of the 1066 appearance of Halley’s Comet in the 950-year-old Bayeux Tapestry, to the memorable audio and video recordings of astronauts on the moon.

  • 3. Is TCQ saying that all “records” are valuable?

    No. If a record is doctored or misrepresentative, it loses its value as a record.

    The value of a record also depends on one's ability to understand it. For example, even the most detailed record written by, say, a 15th-century Chinese explorer would be of little value to a reader who does not understand Chinese — just as an audio recording of an astronaut on the moon (see #2 above) would be of little value if played without context to someone who does not understand English.

    For more on the value of comprehension when viewing “records,” see “B” in #6 below.

  • 4. What’s the advantage of regarding photographs as “records”?

    It lets viewers decide for themselves.

    In the 21st-century, people can safely say,

    “No need for the photographer to tell me which manipulations I shouldn’t worry about. Just show me the record, convince me that it’s not doctored or misrepresentative as judged by universal standards, and I can take it from there.”

    Convincing viewers that a photograph is neither “doctored” nor “misrepresentative” is of course the role of the “Guaranteed TCQ” label, which uses a worldwide consensus to determine those two things.

  • 5. How could otherwise-reasonable people ever have believed that photographs were objective “facts” or that “photographs never lie”?

    Although those beliefs sound ridiculous to 21st-century ears, it’s important to view them in their historical context.

    When photography was invented in the 1800s, it delivered astonishing visual detail that was unlike anything that had existed before. For decades there was no more precise and accurate way to depict “what something looks like” than with a photograph, so the general public considered photographs to be the ultimate in “realism” — photos were regarded as objective “facts.”

    The belief that “photographs never lie” largely stemmed from the difficulty of doctoring photographs without detection by the viewer (see #207). Many people believed that any photograph that “lied” would not look like an objective “fact,” and thus much of the public didn’t think they could be “lied to” by photographs.

    (Of course, “doctoring” isn’t the only way to make photographs lie or deceive; see #230 and #515.)

  • 6. Why do people in the 21st century regard photos as subjective “records” when that attitude wasn’t prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries?

    There are two reasons:

    A. Members of the general public see many more photographs than they did in the 19th and 20th century and are thus far more photographically literate.

    (The more that people see multiple very different photographic interpretations of the same subject — say, the Eiffel Tower — the more likely they are to realize that there is no one “correct” or “objective” perspective when photographing.)

    B. Members of the general public make many more photos than they made in the 19th and 20th century and thus they are more confident that they know how undoctored photographs “work.”

    (In the film era many people would take only a handful of photos per year, and it was not uncommon for people to take no photographs at all! Today — thanks to smartphones — roughly 3 billion more people carry a camera with them than did so just 20 years ago!)

  • 7. The answer to #1 above says that those subjective “records” — photographs — “in many cases can be plenty trustworthy,” implying that in many cases those records are not trustworthy.

    If doctored photos look just as convincing as undoctored photos look, how are viewers supposed to know which photos are trustworthy and which are not?

    That is why the “Guaranteed TCQ” label was created.

    How can photographs be both “subjective” and “trustworthy”?

  • 8. Couldn’t photographs have usefully served our culture as subjective “records” before the 21st century?

    In theory they could have, but as #6 and #7 explain (above), there are three ingredients that are necessary for photographs to be regarded both as subjective “records” AND to be publicly useful—

    and all three ingredients were either minimal or non-existent before the 21st century:

    1. A wide public understanding that photographs are “subjective interpretations” and not “objective facts” (this is discussed in questions #218 and following)

    2. A high level of public awareness of how photographs “work” (see this brief)

    3. A simple way of reassuring viewers that a photograph is neither “doctored” nor “misrepresentative” (as defined by popular consensus)

“Photographs are now generally regarded as individual photographers’ personal interpretations, each one a unique record (‘Look where I was and what I saw!’).”
— from #1 above

I am here. Those three words contain all that can be said — you begin with those words and you return to them. ‘Here’ means on this earth, on this continent and no other, in this city and no other, in this epoch I call mine, this century, this year. I am here — and everyone is in some ‘here’ — and the only thing we can do is try to communicate with one another.”
— Czeslaw Milosz