Photographers are visual liars

Maybe not all of them and maybe not intentionally (in some cases) but, more or less, almost every photograph is a lie of sorts. I’m not even talking about post-processing. We portray what we want the world to see. Each one is a view of the world from the photographer’s viewpoint. The only photos I can think of that might be totally honest are documentary and clinical in nature like, perhaps, crime scene photos. But I even wonder about those.

Bachelor pad

Advertising—using a photo to sell something—may be the most egregious example. Maybe art is worse. Maybe we’re all selling something. But lies come in all kinds. Even the simple act of cropping—by the very nature of a limited field of view—can be called a lie of omission.

Photographs contain truth as well. “I know these people. I was there. We were having fun.” But was it candid? Was it staged? I see what’s in the photo but what’s been left out? The simple act of framing a shot, perspective, and lighting all play their part in lying to the viewer.

I know none of this is radical or new. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I’m not wracked by guilt or anything—I’m comfortable lying through my photographs. It’s more of an intellectual and artistic curiosity. I see it more and more in photos I take, photos I’ve taken in the past even before I ever thought about this, and photos I see everyday by others. Seeing a photo of a place and actually being there are fundamentally different.

I post a lot of photos of my family to my account on Flickr. They’re all (mostly) honest and real. But most are also an idealized view. Each one is a tiny window on a life that, in many ways, is different than it appears. One of my most recent photos (top) shows me and my son having fun, eating pizza, and playing games on a Saturday afternoon. That’s true. That really happened. But the photo was staged after the fact. In that particular case I wanted to capture the spirit of the moment rather than the moment itself. In one sense it’s a complete fabrication. And yet it also tells a true story. I think when I see it again in the future it will bring back true and good memories of that time.

What do you think? Are you a visual liar?

By John Watson

John Watson is the original founder of Photodoto. If you're interested in what John has been up to, you can browse his personal blog.


  1. I agree completly – making a photo is lying because one choses where and when to take a picture and how to frame it. But if one didn’t lie things would be awfully boring.

  2. I too, am a liar. In fact, I keep a fire extinguisher nearby at all times because my pants are known to combust a few times a week.

    I completely agree, and the same thoughts go through my head often when post processing images.

    My personal opinion is that there is more than one type of photography. I console myself by comparing myself more to a painter than a journailst. Whether for sale on my lanscape photography site, or personal family photos, my final images have nothing to do with journalism. Therefore, it must be “art”. Right?

    A photographer selling images to The Sierra Club, or documenting an event for a news story must be very in tune to this issue. I, blissfully, do not.

    Great topic!

  3. Who cares if the photo was “staged” after the fact. It reveals a bond between father and son that viewers can identify with. (I would say your son has some acting ability!)

  4. Agh! This has been my thought for a very long time. I used to work in the wedding industry and frankly, I got SO tired of seeing all the “I wanna be a supermodel” photo shoots rather than what really happened at the wedding event. Beautiful bride holding her bouquet, “look down, think about nuclear physic and quantum theories… it.” “Run across the grass with your bridesmaids… it.” “O.k. guys, pick up the bride like she’s a piece of lumber… it.” It is ridiculous.

    Thousands of dollars spent on an afternoon of memories that more than likely never happened. What a freaking waste. But damn! She looks great in that dress!

    and a hearty “AMEN Sistah!” to Peggy’s suggestion that the Boy is a great actor.

  5. You could say the same thing about any artistic or creative endeavour. It’s a snapshot in time and it’s up to the artist to create “as honest” a portrait of that scene as possible, whether it be a photo, painting, song or writing.

  6. I think “liar” is kind of a strange word. Especially when it tries to lable something that is arguably arbitrary.

    Whever you edit something, frame something, bolster something to make a point. When you write something from your own perspective you are selectively eliminating something that others may feel is important.

    Any type of communication can be called “a lie” if one person wants to drag another person down a notch or two.

    Santa is fundamentally a LIE but he is also a story with a moral, and a purpose beyond the reality that he doesn’t really exist in person form.

    For me a lie in photo form is one that has been deliberately manipulated (think cloning tool to add smoke and explosions to a news image) to inflate what actually happened.

    A photo like this, though, seems more of an illustration of a thought. Not really a lie at all.

  7. I’m not a liar any more than any other artist working in a visual medium. No one asks if Van Gogh fudged a bit when presenting us with Starry Night, do they?

  8. That’s probably true though I think you’re comparing apples and oranges. People don’t have the same expectations of impressionist paintings as they do from photographs.

  9. I found your proposition and reader comments to hit the nail on the head. It really addresses what photography is all about for some. Now I’m satisfied that some of my crappier photos are actually the more realistic, but it does not make them any good. It is said that “Perception is controlled hallucination” so creative photography has to be about inducing elements of hallucination to mold the perception we want to communicate. mike [at} mikebaird d o t com

  10. I agree too… There’s a history of Calvin and Hobbes that says:

    Calvin – This is what I like about photography. People think cameras always tell the truth. They think the camera is a dispassionate machine that records only facts, but really, cameras lie all the time! Select the facts and you manipulate the truth!

    Calvin – Por example, I’ve cleared off this corner of my bed. Take a picture of me here, but crop out all the mess around me, so it looks like I keep my room tidy.

    Hobbes – Is this even legal?

    Calvin – Wait, let me comb my hair and put on a tie.

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