A photograph is as objectively true as anything can be, isn’t it? Pictures record light, as it existed for an instant in material reality. Unlike two fallible people, each with a distinct recollection of what events in their lives did or did-not occur, directly contradicting one another, there’s no wiggle room in a picture about whether or not the light captured by the camera was telling the truth. It was what it was.
Or was it?
The phrase ‘post-truth’ has been a popular term of derision in this age of ‘alternative facts,’ but maybe the idea is more than the notion that those in power will lie at all costs to keep it. Perhaps truth really does not, or can not exist, independent of context.
Today’s cover photos in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal show an almost identical scene – a group of senators and staffers hovering around Sen. Jeff Flake as they discuss the decision to vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
The general composition of the photos, the light cast on the pictured faces, the position of hands on tables and chairs and the folds of suit jackets and ties – with the mostly benign exception of an additional person in the WSJ’s picture, everything is just about the same between the two photographs – with the key exception of Sen. Flake’s eyes, and Sen. Graham’s hands.
In the Post photo, Sen. Flake wears a pained expression. His eyes are cast down and to the left, avoiding contact with those around him. To his right, two Senators glare at him, to his left, another (Graham) looks on, his hands out of view. This picture seen on its own tells the story of a man who looks uncomfortable, and who seems surrounded, who feels like he needs to avoid confrontation.
In the Journal photo, we see Flake differently – he’s leaned forward in his chair just enough within the close quarters to appear aggressive, making forceful eye contact with Sen. Graham to his left. His expression is one of entanglement, he is very much a part of what is happening around him. Most notably, Graham’s hands are raised, palms facing Sen. Flake defensively, as though he is being intimidated, or trying to calm down someone who needs calming. To Flake’s right, Sens. Tillis (standing) and Crapo (seated) show distinctly more upset expressions than they have in the Post photo.
Without context, these two pictures tell two different stories. In the Post photo, Sen. Flake is uncomfortably surrounded, looking trapped, hoping for a way out. In the Journal photo, Sen. Flake is an aggressor, worrying and threatening the figures around him, with the additional figure standing above Graham, hand thoughtfully raised to his chin as though Flake is a troubling puzzle that must be solved.
Both of these pictures are “under oath,” representing reality as captured by a mechanical device with no inclination to represent things one way or another. Which version is the truth?
These days, I guess that depends on which paper you subscribe to.