Lying with Photographs:
An Analytical Framework

UCR ARTS: California Museum of Photography
Curated by Douglas McCulloh

Lies are ever-present in human affairs, a tidal flow that rises and falls. Recently, lies have been at flood stage and photographs are central to the surge.

Statements, strings of words, are readily seen as assertions, claims. Photographs, on the other hand, are presumed to be a form of evidence. In Susan Sontag’s phrase, we assume photographs are “directly stenciled off the real.” Consequently, photographs, even dubious ones, carry credence in a way that words do not. Moreover, writes theorist Lev Manovich, “the reason we think that computer graphics technology has succeeded in faking reality is that we, over the course of the last hundred and fifty years, have come to accept the image of photography and film as reality.” For these main reasons and scores of lesser ones, photographs are ideal vehicles for lies. (Read More)

Additional Notes:
Sources for the Specimens
Mongrels and Crossbreeds
On the Nature of Lies
Marvels and Magical Beliefs 
On Abundance

1. Manipulated  (Read More)
    1.1    Fog and Pestilence    
    1.2   Don’t Believe Your Lion Eyes
    1.3   Wriggling, Writhing, and ‘Rithmatic’
    1.4   The Case of the Body Double
    1.5   Failed Photoshop’s Peak Point
    1.6   Face Reality
    1.7   ‘Triple-washed & Sanitized’

2. Manufactured (Read More)
    2.1   Cross Purposes
    2.2   Political Theater
    2.3   Asleep at the Real
    2.4   Expect the Wurst
    2.5   Black and White
    2.6   The Real Thing. Perhaps.
    2.7   Elongated
    2.8   In Space They Can’t Hear You Lie
    2.9   Cute Overload
    2.10  Dead Real

3. Recontextualized (Read More)
    3.1   Blue-eyed Boy
    3.2  A Glowing Future
    3.3  Blowing Smoke
    3.4 This Many Pictures...
    3.5  Targeted
    3.6  Costume Drama
    3.7  Fish Story
    3.8  Extracting the Truth
    3.9  Secrets Serviced
    3.10 Against the Wall
    3.11  Commemoration

4. Timeshifted (Read More)
    4.1  All the Rage
    4.2  Catnip
    4.3  Time Travel
    4.4  Masquerade
    4.5  Beach Pathology

5. Extracted (Read More)
    5.1  Chapter and Verse
    5.2  Whitewashing
    5.3  The Case of the Melting Cars
    5.4  Deadly Serious
    5.5  Striking
    5.6  Smell a Rat

6. Mirrored (Read More)
    6.1  Orange Appeal
    6.2  Crouching Panther, Hidden

    6.3  Fool’s Gold

7. Denied (Read More)
    7.1  Kidding
    7.2  Pregnant with Meaning
    7.3  A Lot to Learn
    7.4  Out to Sea
    7.5  Vial Lies

© UC Regents 2022

A Lot to Learn

The simplest way to defang a powerful photograph is to claim it is false. Labeling fact as falsehood is a form of lying.  

The Claim
A white demonstrator at a June 2020 Black Lives Matter protest holds a sign of support. It reads: “I’m Sorry I’m Late. I Had A Lot To Learn.” Swarms of social media posts claim the image is false, the wording on the sign is altered.

The Lie
The photograph is genuine. The wheelchair-bound protestor goes by the Facebook name Ryan D. Wheelz and he confirms the viral photo as authentic. “The black civil rights movements,” he writes, “were the biggest supporters of the disability rights movements that happened from the late 70s through the early 90s, there’s no way I could just sit idly by and watch these folks continuously get destroyed through systemic racism.”

The photograph was made June 16, 2020 in Bethel, a tiny south Ohio town, population 2,711. In an unfortunate turn of events, the Bethel Black Lives Matter demonstration, held in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, made national news. About 80 social justice demonstrators—Ryan D. Wheelz included— were overrun by “some 700 counterprotestors,” reports the Washington Post, “members of motorcycle gangs, ‘back the blue’ groups and proponents of the Second Amendment… Some carried rifles, a local news station reported, while others brought baseball bats and clubs.” Wheelz circulated his response: “I hope that the photo lets people of color know that despite popular stereotypes, they have the love and support of many people in rural communities. I also hope it lets people know that it’s OK to change your opinion when you’re presented with new evidence that clearly shows you were wrong.”