Photography Does Not Capture Reality... Ever!


OK, so… I was writing an article for about the differences between documentary photography and photojournalism. An important aspect of both genres is that they try to capture reality. Or, at least, that’s what everybody thinks. It got me thinking and well, there’s no way photography is capturing reality… ever! And I’m talking about photojournalism or travel photography here, not fashion or publicity. Those genres should capture reality but they don’t.

The story behind the photo

It starts with the story. And the problem is: Photos don’t tell the whole story. If photos would capture reality, they would tell you the whole story but they don’t. It’s just a framed slice of reality. I always explain beginner photographers how they should use captions as much as they can. Captions help to tell the story and explain what we don’t see in the photo.

Kids playing on the banks of the Kenge River. Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kids playing on the banks of the Kenge River. Democratic Republic of Congo.

By framing a shot, we already make up a different reality. Ask two photographers to shoot the same thing and you’ll get different results. Different realities of the same subject. Both will be close but neither one of them will capture reality as is. It’s impossible and it’s important to know when you’re starting with photography.

It’s even more important to be aware of it today than in the film days. Photoshop and other programs alter reality even more. And that’s OK! But it’s a fact that we don’t show the true reality. We show a piece of reality. A personal slice that we think is as close as it gets. We frame the photo in a way that -we think- will show everything the viewer needs to know.

Did you get that last sentence? Everything the viewer needs to know. That means the photographer decides what reality is. What I want to say is: You can be the best travel photographer or photojournalist in the world and have the best work ethics. You still won’t show reality. A photo is a combination of reality and what a photographer sees or experiences as reality. Some will get really close and others not so much. Some people might call those last ones “artsy” but even that’s OK. I’ll mention the use of captions here again. They’re really important for reality’s sake.

Colors, pixels and emulsions

When a photographer chooses a particular brand or type of film, he’s already deciding what kind of reality he wants to show. Different types of film show reality and colors differently. Photographers pick film based on what they want the result to look like. Film photography never ever showed reality, not even close.

Beautiful sunset in Thailand.

Beautiful sunset in Thailand.

Maybe you’d think digital photography changed that and yeah, true, a digital photo file is probably as close as it gets but still. There’s not one SOOC file that shows exactly what our eyes see. Is what our eyes see even reality? Wowow, let’s not go there…

Even if digital photography would capture colors and light as we see it, there’s still the problem of framing and the decisions a photographer makes. And don’t get me started about Photoshop or Lightroom. I’m all for post processing but it’s another way of the photographer to alter reality to his likings. If it supports whatever is shown in the photo, there’s not problem for me.

There’s no such thing as photorealism

Photography will never capture reality and that’s OK. Even in genres like photojournalism or travel photography. Yes, we want to show reality but photographers are people with emotions and minds of their own. Everyone is different and every photographer will show a slightly different reality. Whether it’s by using film or adjusting the colors slightly in Photoshop.

Photorealism is not real. No photo shows exactly what we see or what we think we see for that matter. Even if a photo would capture everything exactly as it is; we would never be able to see it because we need either a monitor or other device to watch that photo. It’s always going to be a digital or analog representation of reality.

Framing a shot is creating reality

Some people will say you‘re showing a part of reality by framing and that the frame, from the middle to its borders is true reality. But is that so? It might have been from that one exact angle but there’s another problem: The person that watches your photo. He will make up his own reality. It doesn’t matter how close you are to capturing exactly what happened. The viewer will always see something different than the photographer or another viewer. Even if there’s a great caption that explains everything.

Do you think this kid is sad and lonely? Is he really?

Do you think this kid is sad and lonely? Is he really?

The photographer can also change what the viewer will think about a photo by including things or leaving things out the frame. Unwillingly maybe, yes, but framing will always create a new reality for the viewer. Two photos of the same thing, shot from a different angle will trigger different thoughts and reactions by the same viewer and even worse when there’s multiple viewers.

It’s not a bad thing

No, it’s not. Photos should be beautiful, moving or trigger a reaction or emotion. As long as everything you do supports what you want to show and you don’t lie to the viewer, there’s no problem. From dark rooms to Photoshop and from pixels to framing a shot. It all changes reality in some way or another.

Phra That Cave in Thailand.

Phra That Cave in Thailand.

Photography is an art and that means the photographer has a say in what the result will look like. Whether the viewer likes that result or not is a different discussion but photos will never show reality exactly and that’s absolutely fine if you’re aware of it… It doesn’t mean a photographer should lie through his photos. An audience also has different opinions on what ‘lying’ in photography is. For some, photographers should only use straight out of camera files, unprocessed. For others, it’s OK to go crazy in Photoshop and change colors, contrast and even remove objects. Ever seen those horrible HDR photos…? Yeah, don’t get me started… I think staying somewhere in the middle is perfectly fine…

Well, that escalated quickly… sorry for the rant ;-)