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


Representation is not neutral. Structuring a photograph is ideological activity. In a culture where image is power, negation can be shocking. In some cases, erasure is quickly seen for what it is—an exercise in control, oppression, domination. Frequently, the most telling narratives are those that are suppressed, hidden, erased. The most powerful corrective is when they burst into sight.

The Claim
In January 2020, Associated Press released an appealing photograph of four youthful climate activists at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Against a backdrop of low structures and snowclad Alps, four young women stand looking intent, single-minded, and extremely Nordic. Pictured left to right: Luisa Neubauer (Germany), Greta Thunberg (Sweden), Isabelle Axelsson (Sweden), and Loukina Tille (Switzerland).

The Lie
A Black Ugandan activist, Vanessa Nakate, age 24, was at left, but was cropped out of the image by an A.P. photo editor. Nakate participated in the conference, spoke at the press conference, and posed with the four other climate activists for photographer Markus Schreiber. A.P. called the cropping decision a “terrible mistake” and dubiously explained “the picture had been edited to create a close-up of Ms. Thunberg and to remove a building that was behind Ms. Nakate,” according to the New York Times.

The internet exploded. Sample: “Africa is in our blood, no one can ever take that away from you. You are raising consciousness around the world when it is needed the most!! Chin up girl keep fighting for what you believe in!! So much love from sunny South Africa.” The A.P. apologized to Nakate both publicly and privately and said it would expand diversity training for editors worldwide. Nakate responded by saying the climate crisis has a racial component. “You cannot have climate justice without racial justice. It isn’t justice if it doesn’t include everyone.” The NY Times, meanwhile, points out the irony in Nakate’s erasure: the photo “catapult[ed] her to global fame—not for what it showed, but what it did not.”