Is Seeing Always Believing?

Brian Hornfeldt

Staff Writer, Social Media Manager

With the invention of the camera came the ability to store moments, memories and emotions on a physical object. From the first photo in 1826, which required several hours of uninterrupted exposure, to the last photo you took on your phone, the evolution of photography has brought with it a wide range of benefits, as well as downsides.

Photographs are extremely subjective pieces of media. From the moment of capture, there are biases present in the final product. The photographer chooses what to include in the photo, lighting changes, touchups and where they publish the final photograph. Every image you see, including those you have created yourself, is intentionally framed in a way that fits the desires of the photographer. Not only does this change the effect that it has on the viewer, it can be used to push personal beliefs and values onto the masses who see it. There’s a reason that the phrase “seeing is believing” is so popular, after all.

Throughout history, photo alteration has been extremely prevalent, especially when used as a form of propaganda. Joseph Stalin famously would have enemies of the state airbrushed out of photographs he appeared in in order to uphold his image in the eyes of the public and distance himself from those he disliked. Hitler implemented this same technique, removing people from photographs he appeared in. One well-known example is a photograph of Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who were subsequently removed from the photograph upon its release.

Above image features Joseph Stalin (left) and Nikolai Yezhov (right)
PC: (
Above image features Adolph Hitler (center) and Joseph Goebbels (right)
PC: Security Boulevard

In a study conducted by Dario Sacchi, Franca Agnoli and Elizabeth Loftus, it was suggested that participants who were shown doctored photos of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, which included a large crowd, believed that the event was much more violent as opposed to those who were shown the original images. Our innate urges to believe what we can see and to tailor our memories to accommodate these sights can be used in negative ways to manipulate large swathes of the population.

While photography can be used to protect one’s image or to promote a new view on a topic to the masses, it can also be used to achieve the opposite effect. Photographs such as “Into the Jaws of Death” depict the horrors of D-Day, showing the world the devastating tolls that were taken on the soldiers during World War 2. “Falling Man,” an image taken on 9/11, depicts a man falling to his death, whether by accidentally falling while searching for escape or after deciding to jump to escape the fires. These photographs help to show the world the truth, rather than disguise or alter the history surrounding them. 

PC: Robert F. Sargent, CPhoM, USCG.
PC: Richard Drew – Associated Press

When it comes to the history and usage of photography, it’s important to be aware of all aspects. As with anything, there are positives and negatives. Photography can be used to promote awareness, expose indecencies and crimes, showcase the good in the world, and simply hold memories in a tangible way for the photographer. It can also be used to push a political agenda, withhold incriminating information, or sway the opinions and memories of the public. Photo alterations can help to make something more flattering, or to remove subjects that the photographer doesn’t want to be associated with the image.

The unfortunate reality of photography is that there are few ways to detect inaccuracies in images without being able to see the original image. It’s important to understand the reputations of both the photographer and the publisher when seeing these photos in order to determine whether the images were possibly altered. Almost every photo you see will have been altered in some way, usually to change color, exposure, clarity or cropping. Ultimately, when living in an age of digital mediums, photographs will almost certainly be changed in some fashion before making it onto your screen or page, but it’s important to be able to recognize that seeing isn’t always believing and that there are people who will take advantage of that mindset.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, featured

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