Exercise: Defining the Real in the Digital Age


Read the section entitled ‘The Real and the Digital’ in Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp.73–75. You’ll find this on the student website.

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth? Consider both sides of the argument and make some notes in your learning log.


Note: after not having much success finding the article on the student site, I used instead the section titled “Defining the Real in the Digital Age” in Wells (2015).

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth?

As Wells points out, “we have always known that photographs are malleable, contrived and slippery, but have, simultaneously, been prepared to believe them to be evidential and more ‘real’ than other kinds of images”.  If any doubt remains about just how long people have been tampering with images, the website Photo Tampering Throughout History is mandatory viewing. And yet, many people who well aware of such alterations still cling to a belief in some kind of connection between photography and objective truth. It is this kind of self-deception which is particularly interesting.

Joel Grimes - Jenifer Ann Burnett, Salton Sea

Joel Grimes – Jenifer Ann Burnett, Salton Sea

Roland Barthe’s conception of the nature of a photograph that it is trace of an event in the world was already on shaky ground considering the quite amazing manipulations carried out with film, but with digital technology, the illusion is completely shattered.

How does his concept hold when thinking about composited images (e.g. Joel Grimes)?. What about images constructed entirely using software? We could try and finesse the situation by saying that they are digital images –  they’re not photographs because they fail the basic definition of “painting with light”. That sounds a little desperate and old fashioned.

It’s possible to say that truth is an independent concept which is not dependent on photography in general and that any connections we had in our minds between the two was simply naive. We don’t demand that a painting or sculpture be “true” in any sense, so why should we demand it of photography?

Having said that, if we look at specific sub-genres of photography, we could say that truth is a very important, even essential, aspect independent of the exact medium: analogue or digital. Professional photography such as medical imaging (x-rays, for example) or crime scene photographs have a very specific purpose: to reveal detail and to be objective in order to allow decisions to be made. As Wells says, “It is possible to argue that the authenticity of the photograph was validated less by the nature of the image itself than through the structure of discursive, social and professional practices which constituted photography. Any radical transformation in this structure makes us uneasy about the status of the photograph.”

Perhaps the time is long overdue to drop any pretensions of objectivity and just think of photography as a medium for the creation of art, like any other medium. Susan Sontag (quoted in La Grange, 2005) noted that “photography, like other art forms, increasingly defines realism as not what is ‘really’ there, but what the artist ‘really’ sees. The answer is simply in our definitions: photography (excluding the sub-genres discussed earlier) never was about truth – it’s about art and there are no requirements on art to be truthful at all.


La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 23 Nov 2016)

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 23.09.15)


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