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Exercise – Eye Witness

Are these pictures objective? Can pictures ever be objective?

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 09.33.46
source: mirror.co.uk

This image was purported to show jihadists infiltrating groups of refugees, in confrontation with German police. Vice.com’s research found that it is in fact a picture showing clashes at an anti-Islam rally in 2012 in Bonn, Germany (a different time, different place, different event). The image was falsely captioned by right-wing organisations to promote anti-refugee sentiment. Vice’s article, ‘Calling Bullshit On the Anti-Refugee Memes Flooding the Internet’, shows a number of similar images.

Source: independent.co.uk, EPA
Source: independent.co.uk, EPA

‘A man is carried by Italian police in Ventimiglia, Italy. Police reportedly removed refugees from under a railway bridge, June 2015’. This image is impossible to understand without its context – was the refugee doing something illegal, forcing the police to take action? Was this unprovoked police brutality? From the picture alone, we do not know. Even if we were eye witnesses of the event, it would not be easy to understand the full facts. Truth is a difficult thing to find.

Source: theguardian.com
Source: theguardian.com

This image shows a moment of love in amongst the despair.  The context provided by the newspaper (a quality newspaper) story leaves the reader in little doubt that this was a genuine, spontaneous moment. Though one can easily imagine a different subtext in a less humanist context. For example, there is another image of refugees taking selfies after arriving safely ashore – the context in the Daily Mail was that they were like a bunch of holiday-makers, casting doubt on whether their plight was genuine.

Pictures (or any form of information) can rarely be taken at face-value. The truth is complex and arguably unattainable. We all have complex systems of belief’s and values that affect our perspectives and cause bias. When considering a photograph, we need to understand the biases of the photographer, the news media providing the context, as well as our own. We can investigate and challenge the veracity of an image by asking questions of its narrative (what is within the frame) and it’s context (the many external factors affecting our perception). But objectivity is an allusive quality, to which I believe we can only approximate.

At a practical level, the questions to ask of the context and narrative can be framed around the simple mnemonic, 5WH; who, why, what, when, where, how?Keep asking and one can at least arrive at a near objective understanding of a photograph. It is inconceivable to me that a photography on its own can be objective.


Daily Mirror (16.9.15) [online]. Truth behind picture claiming to show Syrian refugees waving ISIS flag in German. Available from:  http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/truth-behind-picture-claiming-show-6447418 [accessed 27.9.15]

Guardian online (22.9.15). A kiss knows no boundaries. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2015/sep/22/kiss-knows-no-borders-photographing-refugee-couple-budapest [accessed 27.9.15]

The Independent (nd) [online]. The refugee crisis in pictures. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/refugee-crisis-saudi-arabias-offer-to-build-200-mosques-in-germany-for-syrian-refugees-branded-10511850.html [accessed 27.9.15]

Vice.com (10.9.15) [online]. Calling Bullshit On the Anti-Refugee Memes Flooding the Internet. Available from: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/kleinfeld-refugee-memes-debunking-846 [accessed 27.9.15]


    • Andrew Fitzgibbon says:

      Thanks Nuala – wasn’t aware of that comment, but looked it up and understand exactly what you mean. I’m beginning to feel that some of the characteristics that are being pushed as part of photography are much wider and not unique to photography, but part of any communications – so far that context seems to be missing in the material I’ve seen.

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