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Journal of No. 118


October 31st, 2011

Believing is Seeing, by Errol Morris @ 04:22 pm

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I'm a big fan of Academy Award winning documentarian Errol Morris, so I was curious to see his book, Believing is Seeing.

The book comprises a half dozen or so intense investigations into a particular photograph. The questions that preoccupy him are "What can be learned from the photograph?" and "Is the photograph true?"

This inevitably leads to the question, "What the heck does it mean for a photo to be true?" Or fake, or false? Sometimes, but only seldom, this winds up being dormroom philosophy; other times it's really quite thought-provoking. And some of the research involved is something only a monomaniacal madman would attempt, like travelling to the Crimea to find the exact location where a photo from the Crimean War had been taken 150 years ago. The same kind of monomania shown by his subjects in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.

It looks like these may all have been essays written originally for the NYT, so you can possibly read them all online. One example is the Mickey Mouse in Rubble, taken by Ben Curtis, showing the toy in the street after an Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah in Tyre, Lebanon.

At the time, I can remember there were lots of accusations of shenanigans. That the photo had been staged, the toy moved, etc. Morris interviews the photographer extensively, and he seems honest and straightforward and believable. But that's almost the least important part of the story.

The people who reacted so violently against the photo were not so much reacting against the particular pattern of colored dots, as against the meaning of the photo. Let's stipulate that the camera accurately recorded the unmolested scene. As I say, that's the least important part of the controversy.

People were upset that the photo was lying, because it implied that Israel had killed Lebanese children. That it is anti-Israeli propaganda.

Is that what the photo is saying?

Furthermore, did detractors of the photo actually know whether or not children were killed in the atttack? Does that even matter, when discussing whether the photo is real or 'fake'? If a child had been injured but not killed, would that make the photo slightly more true?

Morris shows that the same photo was used in an op/ed piece that made the point that Hezbollah was very wicked to use human shields. So is it anti-Israeli propaganda, or anti-Hezbollah propaganda?

It's an interesting and very visual book; a nice melding of scientific/historical research and artistic examination.
 
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Journal of No. 118