Skip to main content

If you want it to, the camera can lie

By David Burnett
updated 11:17 AM EST, Thu December 12, 2013
Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt shares a joke with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Nelson Mandela memorial as UK Prime Minister David Cameron looks on. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt shares a joke with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Nelson Mandela memorial as UK Prime Minister David Cameron looks on.
HIDE CAPTION
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Burnett: People used to believe that photojournalism depicted the truth
  • A picture is just a moment, he says, not the whole truth. Context is important
  • Photographer says his shots of President Obama and the first lady were misinterpreted
  • Burnett: Pros try to make photos truthful, but photos can lie if they're misused

Editor's note: David Burnett is an award winning photojournalist and co-founder of the Contact Press Images agency.

(CNN) -- When photography first became a method to document events, both large and small, more than a century ago, there was a certain understanding that what one was seeing in a picture was more or less what happened.

The ability to use photography to recount life in a visual way and replicate it in the mass media allowed people around the world to see and understand things they may only have imagined before. The "truth" of photography, embodied by the phrase "the camera doesn't lie," was something that came to be generally accepted. Yet the camera, like most tools used by people, is more than capable of lying if used in the wrong way.

A picture is simply a moment, and although we might think we can divine what it is we are looking at, there are times when a visual representation of life is simply neither the whole truth, nor nothing but the truth.

David Burnett
David Burnett

Increasingly, with the ubiquitous arrival of smartphones, what matters most is simply that someone, not necessarily a trained professional, was able to take a photograph by the simple fact that he or she was present. According to an old press photography saw, when a long-time pro was asked how he made a picture, he replied "f/8, and be there," capturing the essence of what news photography is really about. It is the ability to witness, and capture, a moment in time. Does it always tell the "truth?" That is a good question, since what we define as truth can sometimes have many meanings.

If a picture is meant to be the sole, definitive description of what happened, and no one else is around to see, then to a certain degree, we might have to accept its veracity. But the ever-increasing presence of cameras, both traditional and camera phones, has added a new dimension to what we see. And with the invention and perfection of Photoshop and other photo editing software, it has become much easier to add to, take away from, or alter an image to change its very nature. Can the camera lie? Not sure. Can photographers or editors lie? Most assuredly, if they are of a mind to.

The photograph of President Obama taking a "selfie" with the British and Danish prime ministers is a case in point. Many news organizations and social media platforms jumped on the bandwagon to showcase the photographs where Michelle Obama is looking away, with what could be considered an angry expression. Yet those pictures may not necessarily tell the whole story.

Obama selfie controversy is not new

The AFP photographer who took the photos wrote a blog describing how surprised he was at the reaction to them. And though he released no photos showing the first lady looking more light-hearted, he says, the glum look in the published pictures was simply a moment "captured by chance."

A photojournalist covering an event will take dozens, sometimes hundreds, of pictures in the process. For large-scale events -- the Olympics, political conventions -- often the photographer doesn't even get to edit his own pictures, that job being handed off to an editor. In the digital, WiFi, connected age, this becomes the efficient way of getting work processed and out into the real world. In the end, as viewers, we have to try to sift through not only what we are seeing, but try to understand what we are not seeing.

The growth of social media and the concept of so-called "citizen-journalists," has created a real quandary for the older forms of media and news delivery. Most professional journalists, both photographers and writers, try to adhere to a code of fairness and objectivity.

In the United States, it's only in the last generation that politically charged, partisan reporting has started to become the norm.

It may seem old-fashioned to think that the light of truth is the most important force for good. But that is the place where most professional photographers stand. When you decide on your message first, and then try to make the reporting adjust to it, you have created a place where truth becomes the first casualty. And if you ask it to, the camera -- like the people who use it -- can certainly lie.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Burnett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT