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The Dangers and Glories of Manipulating Reality

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Message Bernard Weiner
Normally, I'd be writing about the dangerous, quickly-expanding conflict between Israel and its neighbors -- both sides apparently spoiling for a final reckoning -- that easily could provide the spark for a full-scale war in the region, and beyond.

(As should have been expected, the clueless Bush Administration is doing nothing to stop the slaughter, indeed chooses to look the other way as Israel totally over-reacts to a bad decision by Hezbollah.)

But I'm holding off for three reasons: 1) The blogosphere is inundated with commentary that covers the ground well, including the likelihood of a spreading Middle East conflict involving Syria and Iran, in addition to the ongoing disaster that is Bush's war in Iraq. 2) I've written much in recent months about the Israel/Palestine mutual-destruction society. 3) Things are happening so fast in that Middle East cauldron that by the time my piece appears, large sections of it could be out of date. (The dangers of writing a once-a-week column.)

Instead this week, I want to talk about photography: both the political implications of its new technology and as a metaphor for the discovery of truth.


For the past several years, to help balance out my obsession with words, I have been dabbling with visual images; recently, I joined a digital-photography group.

What I've discovered is that there are at least two schools of thought about the visual images captured by digital photography.

Many photographers look upon the photos they've taken as having an integrity all their own. They feel this way regardless of whatever trickery they may have employed in the taking of the photograph. The image they got is the image they want viewers to see.

Other digital photographers view the photo taken as merely the starting point for manipulation, mostly through Photoshop, to turn the image into something quite different -- adding to, subtracting from, filtering the visual that was captured by the camera.

Please don't misunderstand me here. I'm not trying to suggest that there is one way, and one way only, of taking and printing photographs. One method is not more "right" than the other.


I don't want to get caught up in the debate about whether photographs really do capture the "truth" or are, by their very nature, "lies." Several photographer-friends quite openly admit that photography has been "distorting" reality from its very inception in the 19th century. Examples: Just by selecting how to light and frame a shot, entire contexts are missing, which can totally alter how the image is interpreted. As can how a print is cropped, developed and printed. So complaining about how manipulating shots in Photoshop is unethical "distorting" -- we're way past that dated argument.

The point I am trying to make here is a larger social, almost metaphysical, one.

Let me get at it this way: As we human beings become more isolated from each other and more separated from direct experience, and thus are forced to rely on information-dispensers to explain much of the world in which we navigate, it is imperative that accurate assessments of reality be available.

More and more citizens have come to understand that they can't always count on accuracy of information from the institutions that underpin our society: church, state, financial institutions, mass-media, etc. Institutions and individuals seem to have agendas all their own -- sometimes economic, sometimes political, sometimes personal -- and lies are told often. In short, It becomes more and more difficult to obtain an accurate assessment of reality that we can really trust.


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Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked for two decades as a writer-editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (more...)
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