Authenticity of Photographs

In my bachelor degree we talked about a law case that I consider to be quite timeless. A woman with two big bags had been photographed in front of a pawn shop. She then found her image in an exhibition and took the photographer to court. The reason: She was holding the view that it seemed as if she had just came out of the pawn office. She thought that could damage her reputation. The case was going on for a while, it was being passed on from instance to instance – and then, the resolution: The woman did have to pay most of the court fees, but won the case – on the ground that photographs picture reality.

Differences in the perception of photos

What's so interesting about that? The consensus in Visual Culture is that images do not picture reality. Even in the general public it is talked about a lot how photos from Instagram and co. represent the lives of the responsible people in a disproportionally positive und fragmented way.

But in jurisdiction, the authenticity of photographs is doubted in no way. Why?
It's simple: Because despite all discussion about adulterant/distorting retouching and the fact that images on Instagram represent mere details of life, pictures are not only perceived on a conscious level. Of course you can look at an election campaign poster of German chancellor Merkel and say: "This poster has been retouched. She looks way younger than she really is. I can see it on TV – why is she even trying to trick me?!" But that is not the reason why even most application photos are getting "pimped" before printing. The extent of retouching can be noted by anyone meeting the photographed person in reality. The real reason is that we subconsciously think: "This person looks relaxed, healthy and professional; she seems to have her life under control." Here, it does not matter whether we know if it's staged or not – it is similar to fashion. Photographs of us contribute to our image.

"That doesn't sound too bad now, does it?", you might ask yourself. Imagine the following: Iceland, in the middle of the wilderness. You booked a photo trip and have the opportunity, with 20 other excited photographers, die atemberaubende Schönheit der Natur einzufangen. Your broad smile nearly outshines the sun and the vista is unique. Now you come within earshot of a waterfall and hurry ahead, you desperately want to capture this spectacle. There are already other travel groups – people are just scrimmaging, you notice now. And as you get closer, you notice something else. A humming and buzzing fills the air, and then you see them: Drones. Many of the travelers have some with them and let them rise high. There are about 100 of them, because everyone wants to capture this moment for themselves on photo or video. It is difficult for you to find a good section to capture. The other people don't interest you at all, and you are only there for the natural spectacle, of course! But people are in the foreground, and in the background, and in the sky their drones fly like blowflies in front of your lens. Of course there is nothing to be seen of the other drones and the crowds on pictures on the Internet - the details are chosen that make the natural spectacle appear as powerful and wild as possible. Otherwise, Iceland's tourist attractions would soon no longer attract visitors.

Pictures never show the whole reality! They cannot, because we all have our own ideas of reality. Of course you can strive for objectivity, but your own experiences are always in the background and shape your view of the world - they determine the subjective section that you perceive.

The problem with inauthentic photos

In our society, our reputation is strongly based on the way we present ourselves to the outside world. We are gregarious animals, and our appearance is a signal to others that helps to integrate us into a hierarchical order. But for me, the fact that a flat image of the outer appearance increasingly adopts our idea of an ideal image is the epitome of superficiality. This is where the creative, the creating function of photos is clearly mixed with the depicting function. An ideal image of a person is produced, which is then regarded as his or her image. In this way we are conditioned to no longer perceive our natural beauty as such. It takes great courage to resist this and to portray oneself as one really feels. At the same time I believe that it is the only way to come to terms with yourself - all the photoshopping wizardry in the world won't help you. If you present yourself to the outside world as you really feel, then there are no discrepancies, no differences in the way you are perceived and want to be perceived.

And you simply feel more comfortable in your own skin. How do you feel when you have to do justice to a retouched ideal image of yourself? Isn't that what people try to do when they have application pictures taken that don't show any wrinkles? Sure, you don't hang such a picture at home. Because it takes you completely out of context. Shows you in clothes that you only put on for work. But what do you need such a picture for, then? It will, most likely, disappear in some company's card index anyway. I wouldn't even say that this is enough to get a first picture of you. It's a perfectly posed, even standardized photo, and you have very little control over what it looks like in the end. The one on the picture, that's you, yeah. You with a standard white background, in a given posture and with a superimposed smile.

As an individual, one can do little against the rigid bureaucratic processes in large companies, but more and more modern organizations are lowering the hurdle. So I heard that someone in his application for a department of the city of Hamburg simply took a picture of himself in front of the Alster!

Feeling well in one's skin

Personally, I think that people would hang one of two kinds of pictures at home: Either one in which they find themselves beautiful and natural, or one that helps them to remember some experience.
I'm assuming that many people just don't know how to feel comfortable in their skin in the face of this flood of perfect images. That's why I'd like to give you a small task at this point: Imagine you could hang pictures of yourself in your apartment or room. Pictures taken by a professional photographer. What kind of clothes would you wear? How would you look? Serious and thoughtful or happy, cheerful, relaxed? Where would you be? In a studio, against an elegant white or grey background, or against a playful pattern? Or in your own room? Or would you like to be outside, in your favourite place? On the beach, in the mountains, in the middle of a flower meadow? You can control everything! I would be very interested to know what your ideas of a perfect photo of you look like – if you like, just send me a quick email or give me a call and tell me about it personally!

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