PRINT October 1990


Truth Value

In order to receive any attention from the news media, the profession of still photography has to do something that’s considered to be especially wild or overblown or shocking. Like having a thoroughly overpublicized but largely uncritical 150th birthday. Or having a show with pictures of naked children in it. Or being the subject of a book—Fred Ritchin’s In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography (Aperture, 1990)—about how the truth value of photography Is now shot to hell forever because of new computer technologies that can seamlessly alter a photograph by adding people, or moving things around, all at the whim of some magazine editor or computer technician. In other words, photography has to find a “hot-button” issue if it’s to be considered significant enough to merit serious critical notice, not to mention noisy political attack.

Now the work Ritchin has done on the implications of these new technologies is both important and dismaying. But the brouhaha that’s been created over it—and over the terrible possibilities for manipulating photographs, especially photojournalism—is based on the assumption that up until now, what we have seen in photographs has been real and meaningful, even true. Spending just an hour with the New York Times will disabuse a careful reader of that notion. But what is convenient about the alarums over machine-made manipulations is that it obscures with the glamour of technology the dull, pedestrian reality of normal, run-of-the-mill manipulation—the kind that springs from the dirty realm of politics rather than the antiseptic aeries of high technology.

A case in point is a recent Times policy of decorating its editorials with images that “prove” what the words beneath it are saying. Take the picture the Times printed at the top of its lead editorial last June 29, under the headline “The Contra War, 1981–1990.” On the picture’s left side stands a goateed man in fatigues brandishing what is probably a semiautomatic rifle. The Times identifies him as a contra leader (although not one important enough to hove a name),and his gun as U.S. made. On the right-hand side of the picture stands Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the newspaper publisher with no political constituency who won the Nicaraguan election for president by assembling a weird left-to-right coalition that had decided to agree on her election because otherwise the U.S.’s anti-Sandinista war would be waged until Daniel Ortega Saavedra was out and the Nicaraguan people were poorer than the Haitians. The occasion for this photo opportunity was what the Times called a “monumental moment: the end of the contra war, promoted by Washington against Soviet-backed Sandinistas.” (Emphasis added.)

Promoted? PROMOTED??? Now, the New York Times saying Washington “promoted” the subversion of the Sandinistas is like Reagan claiming that trees cause pollution. Given its Orwellian inversion we need to look at what “promote” means in the context of our present culture. Don King promotes prizefights. Phil “The Scooter” Rizzuto promotes the Money Store. And Martha Raye promotes the denture adhesive Polident. You see the problem. War, political subversion, years of misery don’t quite cut it in the company of false-teeth fasteners and sportingly accommodating moneylenders. But because Reagan established a notional tradition of lying, bluffing, and failing to do one’s homework, which took the place of the always-tenuous traditions of integrity and expertise, the Times apparently feels duty bound to continue carrying the ball.

That must be the reason the Times fails to insert three important little letters—CIA—anywhere in their darling tribute to the values of “democracy” and “free” elections in Nicaragua. Couldn’t drag the CIA into it because that might make their last paragraph sound just a teensy bit—well—preposterous. We’re actually still rubbing our eyes, but the type in said paragraph spells out the same message over and over again.

“In nearly 10 years, 30,000 Nicaraguans were killed, many more wounded, the economy shattered and Washington ensnared in horrors like assassination manuals, the clandestine mining of Nicaraguan harbors and the still-reverberating Iran-contra scandal.” (Emphasis added.) Here the New York Times sends us scampering to our dictionaries again (the Times is one publication that regularly forces us to look up not unfamiliar and difficult words but familiar and seemingly obvious ones used in an unfamiliar and highly complicated manner). So, Washington was ensnared, as in “to take in” or to catch, to trap, to bog, leading to sensations of helplessness and victimization. But the Times can’t seem to pinpoint who or what was responsible for ensnaring poor, innocent Washington, D.C. The entrapment must have occurred, then, as a kind of immaculate deception—don’t know where, don’t know how, but Lordy, look what happened.

Yet all of that is past, which the Times proves with this picture: “But now, with the moment frozen above, this war is over.” A frozen moment showing the end of something that Washington was “ensnared” in and yet “promoted.” This blatant fictionalizing is a sign not only of what is dark and evil in the body politic but also of what is desperate and brain dead. Clearly, George Bush is not handing out enough evasion, baloney, and sheer lies during his myriad photo ops and Q & A sessions. To compensate, the Times has been forced to extreme measures in having to create its own. To which we can only say: Mr. President, come on. Act presidential. Extrude some clever, picture-heavy propaganda, and let the wheels of the “free” press turn unhindered once again.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator, and senior editor at American Photo. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.