The Nature of Facts
by David Bate
"Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them."
Charles Dickens, Hard Times, 1854
The 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award is the latest in a string of incidents to challenge the authority of the photographic image. When the Natural History Museum in London took down Marcio Cabral’s nocturnal photograph of an anteater because it had been deemed ‘fake’, the photographer protested that they were wrong. It had been noticed that the anteater in his night time photograph bore an uncanny resemblance to the stuffed animal on display at the entrance to Brazil’s National Park, Emas, where the picture was taken. Five ‘scientists’, experts in animals and taxidermy concluded the photograph was ‘faked’ (a montage of a live natural scene with this stuffed animal). Such examples of fakery are not new, but they are part of a new narrative about photography and its users being untrustworthy. People are using photographs to create their ‘own fictions’. Thus we need to do more ‘fact-checking’ it is claimed. Journalists protest that the truth must be preserved. Others claim this is all part of some social transformation of our times, where truth is no longer so relevant: an age of ‘post-truth’.
How does a specific moment called ‘post-truth’ come about? What is this moment? The notion of post-truth makes a melodramatic claim that truth and certainty in society are in the process of being abandoned. Rationality has suffered a sudden drop in fortune, we are no longer interested in it, and it has less social significance than ever before. Thus in a post-truth world, ‘truth’ is superseded by something else, called ‘post-truth’. We used to have truth, but now we have something else, which is no longer ‘truth’, but post-truth.
As a ‘word of the year’ in 2016 the term post-truth suddenly appeared in the Oxford English dictionary for the first time. Certainly as a term, it has grown in usage and popularity, despite the fact it was already in use and circulation long – at least a decade – before 2016. We should understand the inclusion of the term post-truth in the dictionary as the recognition of its importance in popular currency and circulation within everyday life (The function of a dictionary is precisely to lend definitions to terms used in everyday language and life). Should we consider post-truth as more than this? Should we think that we are in an era of post-truth photography? What in fact would it mean? The dictionary definition of ‘post-truth’ is given as:
"relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief"
The definition of post-truth thus sets objective fact in opposition to emotion and personal belief (A philosopher might describe these as an opposition between objective and subjective knowledge). So the contemporary issue that ‘post-truth’ speaks to is the idea that we are no longer in an age of truth, but one of emotions. This is because it claims implicitly that truth or ‘objective facts’ no longer matter as much as how we feel about something. But what is an objective fact? Why should ‘objective fact’ be the opposite of ‘emotion and personal belief’ and how might these distinctions relate to photography in general or a photograph in particular? Does the fact that post-truth as an idea is popular in currency, as indicated by its repeated presence in cultural journalism, mean that we are now living in some kind of personal hallucination of reality?
One of the already popular photographic examples of ‘post-truth’ is Donald Trump’s Presidential inauguration ceremony in 2016. According to the widespread news and media reports the following day, the event of Donald Trump’s ceremony had notably smaller crowds than at Barack Obama’s similar inaugural ceremony back in 2009. The press published a number of photographs of the two events to ‘show’ the crowds were smaller at Trump’s ceremony. These news reports about the smaller crowd size at Trump’s ceremony were dismissed as ‘fake news’ by Trump’s press staff even though photographs of the ceremony crowds were published across the world in newspapers and online media, often side by side with Obama’s ceremony photographs to make the crowd comparisons visible to all readers.
At the first Whitehouse press conference that followed the inaugural event the then new press secretary, Sean Spicer, disputed the interpretation, if not the veracity of the photographs. In a read statement by Spicer, and to the astonishment of the journalists in the room, he thwarted the many reported assertions that the photographs were proof to the contrary, by arguing that there were other facts to be considered in looking at the photographs:
"Photographs of the inaugural proceedings were intentionally framed in a way (in one particular tweet), to minimize the enormous support that had gathered on the national mall. This was the first time in national history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the mall. That had the effect of highlighting any areas where people were not standing, while in years past, the grass eliminated this visual. [...] Inaccurate numbers were also tweeted, because no one had numbers, because the National Parks service, which controls the National Mall, does not put any out. This was the largest audience to ever witness any inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe."
In short, Spicer claimed that the use of the photographs and associated numbers of people were manipulated (‘intentionally framed’) to and to , actions that he condemned as . Photographs of the two ceremonies, taken by the National Parks service at the same time and location of each ceremony were then re-published, cited again as evidence to prove that Trump’s ceremony had less people attending than at Obama’s. These photographs, it was claimed by journalists showed incontrovertibly that Trump’s inauguration crowd was ‘smaller’. Confronted with this, Trump’s campaign press secretary Kelly Ann Conway famously went on TV to claim that the Whitehouse staff had been drawing on ‘alternative facts’. The statement suggested that facts might be located elsewhere than in a photograph. What to make of all this?
The situation became yet further confused when Trump himself, in an overtly theatrical speech to CIA staff the following day, claimed that he had seen a report on TV which showed his inauguration taking place in an ‘empty field’. Waving his hands about to exemplify this astonishing absence of people, Trump’s apparent outrage (manifestly at his own invention of nothingness) turned a petty debate about the numbers of people attending a ceremony into a stark instance of total social disbelief. Trump’s characteristic ‘exaggeration’ notwithstanding, his intervention made all this begin to sound like a classic case of ‘denial’. The term ‘denial’ so often used in everyday language now is actually taken from psychoanalysis. Denial relates to individual cases where the perception of something is disavowed. What this refers to is instances where something that is clearly visible to a person in external reality is ‘not recognised’ by them. In clinical language, such cases of ‘denial’ or disavowal are understood as a basic form of (ego) defense against the reality presented. Yet these cognitive repudiations of knowledge are often tacitly recognised by the person in an obtuse and complex way, which seeks to ‘foreclose’ the possibility of recognition. So, for example, Trump in his speech recognises the existence of the field, but does not ‘see’ any people within it, even though it was quite clear to everyone else that people were there. To everyone else, the argument was simply a political argument about how many people were present. Trump’s exaggeration of there being no people in his description might thus be described as a person ‘drifting towards a dream’. We can thus separate these two accounts of the inaugural scenes.
Trump’s claim was that he saw images of a field on TV with no people in it. This denial was different from the legitimate social dispute about how many people attended the event, how to establish the facts of the case and what the photographs proved in relation to these numbers of people. In this latter case of ‘establishing the facts’ about the numbers, it was clearly the role of the National Park mall photographs that were crucial; given and taken as evidence of ‘the facts’ in dispute. Indeed, the whole episode of these inaugural ceremony photographs lays bare the suppositions about what we derive from photographs, and how or where any kind of ‘fact’ is established. When challenged, the idea that photographs yield some kind of truth becomes somewhat suspect (A recent news article claims the original park photographs were already ‘edited,’ at Trump’s request, to improve the appearance of the numbers of people attending the ceremony). Although a photograph may describe something (objects, people, spaces) how someone sees what is in the image is related to the dynamics of their own personal belief and discursive knowledge, which they use to interpret an image.
In a commonsense view, the availability of a ‘fact’ in a photograph is understood as separate from its interpretation. A photograph is generally understood as a non-interpreted description, as ‘objective fact’, even though we should of course also remember that the photograph of any thing is itself already an interpretation of it. Representation is interpretation. With the inauguration photographs, the pictures are believed as evidence of the numbers of people present in an abstract form. In fact, from the newspaper reproductions of the images we cannot see the people in the images as distinct individuals in the image (such that, for example, we might count them). Rather, we understand the people as blobs in a crowd: represented collectively by clumps of light and shade. In this respect, the photographs are taken to signify in abstract volume the patches of people who figure the numbers at the event. The photographs have their ‘authority’ as non-interpretive descriptions about the event because they seem to belong to a different stage of knowledge production to interpretative narratives (i.e. written news articles). Authorised by the photographer and institutions responsible for producing them, the photographs taken at the event are understood as prior to the interpretative commentaries of journalists, politicians, pundits and ordinary people, who subsequently have all judged the numbers of people present at the two ceremonies of Trump and Obama. These judgments are based on the visual comparison between different visual representations and the numbers of people calculated to be there in both by the secondary discourses.
What is of interest here is less the discrepancy between the different interpretations of the photographs, of who is right or wrong, but the decisive factors in the production of knowledge. One party sees the photograph as immune from interpretation because it represents a fact (the number of people seen present). The other party expresses their doubt or disbelief about the visible description, because, they claim, there are other ‘alternative’ facts that contradict the visible ‘evidence’ in the photograph. In other words, the photograph is called into question as a specific form of representation to produce knowledge. What does it mean to claim that this is a ‘post-truth’ discourse?
That is to already concede a societal shift in the value of the photographic image from a status of ‘truth’ to non-truth or post-truth. A post-truth discourse might thus want to situate these inaugural photographs within a much longer historical narrative, a chronology of examples, which sets out to ‘prove’ the declining truth-value of photographs in public discourse through a number of examples. They could cite a new era of ‘post-photography’, ushered in due to ‘Photoshop’ and the rise of ‘digital manipulations’, cynical postmodern culture, corrupt and cynical politics and journalism, the devious and false use of images in advertising, and of course trolls on social media platforms, destroying any notion of truth whatsoever. Indeed, we might even say that ‘computerised civilization’ is itself instituting a set of fundamental mutations in the foundation of knowledge systems. The capacity to collect data that organise government policies, financial markets, corporate strategies, and the non-visible use of algorithms in media production and personal and social activities are certainly all involved in the everyday circulation of electronic photographic images. Yet while it is perfectly possible to construct a narrative of decline in ‘truth-value’ or post-truth from all this, that is not really a historical view at all, because these uncertainties about the relation between photographs and truth have all been evident since the origin of photography itself. The transition to digital culture may well have changed many of the factors involved, but we should not imagine there was ever a time when photographs were innocent things.
What the discourse of ‘post-truth’ is really about is an attempt to usher in certain traditional preferences for what we should believe. Post-truth is a discourse based on a re-assertion of notions of truth that have always been highly problematic. The construction of truth, we learnt long ago with Michel Foucault, is dependent on the productions of knowledge and certain belief systems established upon and through discourses of power. One of these is the equivalence drawn between the role of the visible to establish what is ‘real’ and the relation of this real to belief. Yet the conventional flimsy correlation between seeing and believing in what is real is itself the product of an old ‘modern’ discourse of rationalism that separated description from interpretation. The model for these ideas belongs to the early nineteenth century moment when photography was itself invented. The rise in the use of statistics to produce surveys, for example, of cities and populations, numbers of disease, etc. was a new form of representation that used numerical tables that claimed to describe the actual circumstances of the place as ‘factual’, without any accompanying analytic or interpretative commentary. Description and interpretation seem to be different and we find this same logic used in relation to the foundational thought about photographic images. Consider this early example from William Henry Fox Talbot’s writing on a picture in his first ‘photobook’ The Pencil of Nature (1844-46):
"PLATE III. ARTICLES OF CHINA. From the specimen here given it is sufficiently manifest, that the whole cabinet of a Virtuoso and collector of old China might be depicted on paper in little more time than it would take him to make a written inventory describing it in the usual way. The more strange and fantastic the forms of his old teapots, the more advantage in having their pictures given instead of their descriptions. And should a thief afterwards purloin the treasures – if the mute testimony of the picture were to be produced against him in court – it would certainly be evidence of a novel kind; but what the judge and jury might say to it, is a matter which I leave to the speculation of those who possess legal acumen. The articles represented on this plate are numerous: but, however numerous the objects – however complicated the arrangement – the Camera depicts them all at once."
In this description Fox Talbot claims, a photographic image can replace a lengthy written description of these things and as such be presented as a set of facts. The ‘mute testimony’ of the photograph, as Fox Talbot puts it, provides something totally new, whose novelty of showing all these objects at once is perhaps lost on us in the abundance of photographic images today. Of course, Fox Talbot’s image and commentary anticipates the ‘insurance’ photograph as a record and ‘proof’ of ownership of precious objects. Yet, note that Fox Talbot, a scientist, carefully separates in his writing what the image shows (its description) from what ‘a judge and jury might say’ (the interpretation) of them. We can see here the logic that has organised a certain discourse on photography, which presents a photograph as a ‘fact’ existing outside of its interpretation. ‘Facts’, in this sense, are conceived not as interpretations, but as something like a ‘truth’, but one that can then be interpreted (in different ways). It is from this type of discourse that the false hope of ‘photographic truth’ has been hewn, sawn and built. It is a false hope because the photograph is never a ‘fact’, beyond the evidence of the person or institution that authorises it as a witness. To say all this is not to despise truth, or welcome falsity in photography, but to liberate it from those discourses whose practices have sought to constrain it to a world of innocence and ignorance.