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What's So Special About Photographs?

Is there an ethics of photography?

Annie Liebovitz

I love photography. Don't get me wrong, I love paintings and drawings too, but there's something about photographs and the way they combine the perceptive eye and mind of the photographer with the stark reality of the subject, the sense of reality as shaped—but not modified—by the artist. In "Factive Pictorial Experience: What's Special about Photographs?," a paper forthcoming in the journal Noûs, philosopher Robert Hopkins of the University of Sheffield explores the unique properties of photographs, comparing them to both "handmade" pictures (such as drawings and paintings) as well as digital photographs.

What this comes down to, according to Hopkins, is factive pictorial experience, which can be broken down into two parts. The pictorial experience is what he calls seeing-in, the experience by which "we grasp what a picture depicts" (p. 2). We have this experience with all pictures that represents an object (as opposed to abstract pictures, which represent a concept or idea but not an object), though sometimes it may take a while to realize what the object is (because of the way it's shown, perhaps).

A pictorial experience is factive if it relays facts about that object. If our experience of a picture showing a boy holding a ball is factive, then we know that that boy was holding that ball when the picture was taken. And it is this factivity that gives photograph their special status, the fact that we know—given certain qualifications—that what we see in a photograph actually existed or occurred. Handmade pictures may be beautiful, thought-provoking, or inspirational, but there is no guarantee, nor even an implicit suggestion, that the object or scene shown in the handmade pictorial is, or was at one time, real. But with a photograph, there is a such an implication: this is real, this happened, this is truth.

But the picture, as it were, is not so simple. Photographs also reflect the eye and artistry of the photographer; we appreciate a great photograph not only because of its subject, but also because of how the photographer shot it. Composition, lighting, angle—they all influence the effect a photograph has on us, as shown by the work of great photographers such as Annie Liebovitz. But this does not change the fact that what appears in the photograph existed, as the photograph shows, at some point in time. We have no doubt that when we see John and Yoko "embracing," or naked pregnant Demi, that what we are seeing existed in front of Ms. Liebovitz's camera.

Of greater concern is modification of the photograph. Photographic images have been manipulated almost since photography was invented; we've all seen "documented evidence" of fairies, Bigfoot, or a third Olsen twin (each scarier than the last). So why should we hold photographs to some special status based on their supposed factivity when they can be faked or fraudulent?

Hopkins admits this, and argues that 1) photographs by their very nature are designed to be factive, but 2) this factivity is realized only if things are working properly and done right. In other words, photographs may not always be accurate, but there is an expectation that they are—there's a normative aspect to photography by which they are supposed to accurately depict reality. And this includes how we view photographs: we should look at them with the assumption that we are looking at a picture of reality and try to make the best sense out of it we can.

If we see a four-legged horse-shaped animal with black and white stripes, we should conclude that it's a zebra rather than that legendary third Olsen twin. If we see a picture of someone apparently squeezing the Eiffel Tower between their fingers, we should realize it's a trick of the eye (or a cheap replica—of the Tower, not the fingers). And that's why Escher drawings are so befuddling, because we can't make sense out of them, and our minds so desperately want to. (Likewise with the appeal of Justin Bieber to anyone over the age of six, but I digress.)

And it is this normativity that saves the factivity of even digital photography. True, digital images are much more easily manipulated than the photographs of olde; your average six-year-old can use Photoshop to create an image of Olsen #3 that would fool even the most devout Full House fan. But this practice, just like the manipulation of traditional photographic images, is rightly seen as an aberration of the process. Regardness of the nature of the technology involved and the enhanced manipulation it allows, if the legitimate norms and practices of photography are followed, digital photographs provide the same factivity as traditional ones, and it is up to us to make sure those norms are followed. (Actually, on pp. 15-16 of the article there is a fascinating discussion of the interpolation of color in cheaper digital cameras, similar to upscaling of DVDs for high-definition TVs—or sampling in census counts—which technically does not preserve perfect images, but the informational distortion due to this is likely to be minor. But it's cool nonetheless, at least to me.)

As Hopkins admits at the end of the paper (p. 21), what all of this may boil down to is the old saying "the camera never lies." But more to the point, Hopkins explains why the camera should never lie: the ethical norms behind photography, which will help preserve the special value of photographs regardless of how technology advances to let us more easily distort them.


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