More on FAQ #217

217. For viewers it makes perfect sense that undoctored photos showing “what the camera saw” are more trustworthy than are photos that have been doctored to show “what the photographer wishes the camera had seen.”

So why does that seem so radical to some photographers?

Because when it comes to understanding the factors involved in what the public trusts, some photographers lag behind viewers.


A. Film-think in the digital era

It is not uncommon for photographers to retain the perspective of the film era, a time when photographs usually couldn’t be doctored without making them look less trustworthy.

In other words, back in the film era “appearance” was often a fairly reliable indicator of “trustworthiness.”

Those days are gone.

In the digital era it is easy to doctor a photograph without making it look less trustworthy (see #209).

That’s why there is no longer any reliable connection between “appearance” and “trustworthiness” (see #205).

Yet while viewers’ expectations have changed, many photographers have held onto the philosophy that “Unless it’s a news photo, appearance is all that matters.”


B. It’s not so simple anymore

Granted, there are many kinds of photographs where “appearance” is all that matters (including these kinds).

With those kinds of photographs viewers are unlikely to care whether an effect was caused by “what the camera saw” vs. “simulating the desired effect by using software after the exposure was made.”

But photography is not just about how the photo looks anymore. Not just with news photos but also with many kinds of “non-news” photographs (see the categories in Summary #9), viewers often care about trustworthiness.

To viewers interested in which photographs they can trust, there is a big difference between “what the camera saw” vs. “what the photographer wishes the camera had seen.”

That’s true even when the two versions look identical; read for example the section called “Meaning” on this page.

Of course, since TCQ is about trust, the “before vs. after” distinction is central to the policies spelled out in the Trust Checklist.


C. Coming around

So yes, to many photographers the idea that “two photographs may look identical but have different meanings” can sound fairly “radical” at first, especially when it is applied to non-news photographs.

But photographers (of any subject) who want to optimize trust are likely to eventually see the issue from viewers’ perspective.