Take A Picture: On Errol Morris's "Believing Is Seeing"

By Lauren WalshMay 20, 2012

Believing Is Seeing by Errol Morris

RECENTLY, OVER DINNER, I asked five friends what each thought the most powerful photographs of 2011 had been. The list of replies included journalistic photos from the Arab Spring to the Norway terrorist attacks to Occupy Wall Street.  Knowing I would pose this question and trying to anticipate my friends' responses, I had some of the images they referenced with me on my laptop. I pulled up the jpegs and then asked why they were powerful. The conversation that ensued moved between aesthetics and politics, with a few salient themes — the portrayal of vulnerability and its emotional impact on the viewer, a privileged access to something normally private, and the depiction of loss — recurring throughout.

Powerful photographs are generally not images of happiness — or only rarely, as in the case of a 2011 Getty Images photo of Phyllis Siegel and Connie Kopelov, the first same-sex couple married in New York City, which catches the two elderly women, one in a wheelchair, in a tender moment of affection. And even here the happiness is bittersweet: the celebration implicit in this photo is simultaneously a reminder of the long legal, political, and cultural battles that had to be fought to achieve this step forward, and of how little time this couple has left to enjoy their marriage. But still, that image represents a moment of triumph and love. Far more often, however, the most powerful photos, as they were discussed over this dinner, are images of suffering, loss, destruction, war, death, or disaster.

Why are these the powerful photographs? What about these images speaks to us? What, in fact, are they saying or conveying to us? I offer one case in point as an illustration of how our conversation progressed: A photograph by press photographer Justin Lane depicts a man in a suit kneeling before, and partially draped over, a commemorative wall at the North Pool of the new 9/11 Memorial in downtown Manhattan. It was taken on September 11th of last year, at the memorial ceremony at Ground Zero. It's a quiet photo and a private moment, and those who have seen this image captioned will know that this man lost his son on September 11th, 2001.

But what makes it powerful is not simply that it's an intimate image of loss and suffering, nor is it solely that it's beautifully composed — almost a black and white photo due to the lack of color in this scene, a strong beam of light running down the commemorative wall, and the focus sharply on the man while the background becomes soft and fuzzy. It is powerful for these reasons and also for two others, as my friends and I identified at dinner. The first, obviously, is that it refers to a defining moment in recent American history. The second is that, despite the specificity of the historical moment to which this image is pegged, it is also powerful in its openness. In tapping into a ten-year-long narrative, it allows any viewer an identificatory space in which to inscribe herself. How has 9/11 affected me? we ask.  Did I know someone who died? Where was I last year on the anniversary?  Moreover, even with a caption that tells us this man's name as well as his son's, we don't know these people. This man stands in for every father — or every parent, or everyone — who lost someone that day. For me, personally, the fact that the man's shoelace is untied is a potent detail that undoes some of the structured nature of the 9/11 ceremony and the formality of the man's suit, and suggests, in a quiet way, the unplanned humanity of the moment.


This cheery dinner discussion came about because I had recently read Errol Morris's Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography. This fascinating book raises a number of compelling, challenging questions, not exactly on the nature of photography as a medium, but on how we receive and respond to photographic images. Through Morris's drawn-out case studies of a handful of historically potent photographs, ranging from two pictures taken during the Crimean War to some of the infamous Abu Ghraib snapshots, the reader comes to see that this photography book is as much about perception, knowledge, and a Holy Grail-like quest in search of historic truth.

Believing is Seeing is not the typical academic book of photographic theory or criticism, and while some readers may wish for deeper engagement with the theories that have informed the study of photography (Walter Benjamin, John Berger, or Roland Barthes, for instance), Morris's quirky, curious style is refreshing. Little did I know at the beginning of this book that his Observations on the Mysteries of Photography would lead me to Egyptians in Mesoamerica or to jokes about time shares in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. All told, this is a valuable contribution to the literature on culture and photography, and, most importantly, it is a text that will make its readers think — a crucial response, given that we live in an era where the photographic image is often still too habitually and too trustingly taken as fact.

We've seen similar work from Morris before. He is an Academy Award-winning director, who has used the cinematic documentary form to seek out buried truths ever since his early film projects, such as The Thin Blue Line (1988), which scrutinized the case of Randall Dale Adams, found guilty, on tenuous grounds, of murdering a police officer in 1976. (That riveting film and the publicity it generated contributed to Adams's eventual release from prison.)  The conviction that truth is determinable might seem to characterize Morris's modus operandi; but of course, in reality, "the truth" is an elusive thing, sometimes inherently impossible to "find." Nevertheless, Morris thinks of the case studies in Believing is Seeing as mysteries and invites us to do the same, taking us on various journeys in time and place to try to solve photographic riddles, investigating, as the book jacket explains, "the relationship between photographs and the real world they supposedly record."

Morris's short introduction is more biographical than it is an overview of the book to come. He is plagued by the loss of his father, who died when Morris was almost three years old — too young to personally remember anything about him. Accordingly, Morris turns to photographs in order to "know" the man. What this small and captivating section of Believing is Seeing discloses is the author's implicit penchant toward narratives: "Who was this man in the photographs?" he asks of his dead father. Morris is not interested simply in the picture, but in the stories behind it. And as he points out, photographs simultaneously reveal and conceal; for every detail shown, there is as much withheld. In the case of his dead father, this is no secret. Those photos picture the absent father, reinstating him visually, while at the same time profoundly reminding the invested viewer-son of the loss that can never be made whole again.  And so when Morris, like a detective seeking clues, tells us there was "ample evidence" of his father's former presence in his childhood home ("his chair, his pipe, his tobacco jar"), we hear him trying to fill, at least partially, the gaps that open in spaces of absence. In the work at large, Morris similarly performs detective work — extremely extensive in some cases — to make whole the gaps in our knowledge that photographs often seem hard-pressed to fill.

The book proper opens with a pair of photographs taken in 1855 in the Crimea by Roger Fenton and now known, collectively, as "Valley of the Shadow of Death." The two images show the same desolate landscape: an unpopulated road winding through that ominously named valley. In one case, the road is empty, and cannonballs line the side of it; in the other, the road is littered with cannonballs. Morris reveals, almost proudly, that his interest in these two images grew from two sentences penned by Susan Sontag, where she writes that war photography, in the early days of the camera, was often manipulated in the form of staging a scene. Sontag says that the image with the cannonballs strewn across the road is the staged image, taken after the photo with the empty road: "before taking the second picture — the one that is always reproduced — [Fenton] oversaw the scattering of the cannonballs on the road itself." As a critical reader, Morris is bothered by Sontag's statement about which photo came first and which second. How could she know this? "[S]houldn't she offer some evidence?" he asks.

Thus begins Morris's journey to unravel his first mystery. It is a long and involved journey that entails no less than a trip to the Crimea, to the very location where Fenton stood in 1855. Morris even borrows a cannonball from a local museum in order to replicate the shadows in Fenton's photos — his commitment to solving the mystery is impressive. That said, the reader may feel at times that some of the information he presents as he makes his findings is too much, or too detailed, or even just plain too tangential (as when, for example, in a later chapter the reader is treated to a discourse on the Mayan calendar). Ultimately, Morris comes to the same conclusion on sequencing that Sontag did. But where Sontag, he says, made an inference, Morris conducts actual empirical research. 

In the end, however, even Morris's interpretation is still just that: an interpretation, albeit a plausible, informed one. What really lies behind this question of the photos' chronology are more interesting matters about manipulation and viewer psychology. Many would agree that the cannonballs on the road — appearing as they do in contrast to their background and thus far more highlighted in this version of the image — makes for the more powerful picture, the one that more readily connotes the dangers of war. Yet Morris notes that a photographer's work seems somehow devalued when we learn that an image has been altered or staged. But, he asks,

is it unnatural to have people move cannonballs? Or inauthentic? Aren't these photographs of human events — even if there are no people in the frame. They are photographs about war. The effects of war. Is war itself natural or inauthentic? The concepts of naturalness, authenticity, and posing are all slippery slopes that when carefully examined become hopelessly vague.

Is a photograph "inauthentic," in other words, just because the objects in the frame have been moved around a bit? Nothing, after all, has been introduced into the Fenton scene that wasn't already there, if only to the side. The cannonballs are there in the Valley of the Shadow of Death because the Russians have been shelling, blasting away at their adversaries.

Such questions relate, inextricably, to viewer psychology, and to the assumptions we wind up making about the identity of the photographer. If the scene was altered, was it done so for personal reasons — so Fenton himself could get a better picture? Was it done so for political reasons — to convey the horrors of war even in the absence of bloody bodies? Can we trust a photograph less, knowing that a scene has been manipulated? If we think the answer is an easy "Yes," Morris pulls us up short.  Every photograph, he reminds us, involves manipulation; every photographer makes decisions about how the image will look in the end. When we decide what to include (or exclude) from the picture's frame, when we decide whether to center a subject or position it to the side, we make decisions that affect how our viewers will receive the photos we take.



Still, we're bothered when we suspect that a journalistic image has been staged in any way. We would like to believe that photojournalists are like the instruments they use: mechanically recording history as it occurs. Or at the very least, we'd like them to aim to work in such a fashion. What the Fenton example reveals, alongside some of Morris's other case studies, is what we might think of as an evolving understanding of what constitutes a documentary image. We know, for instance, that the studio of the celebrated Civil War-era photographer Mathew Brady staged many of its battlefield photos, propping the dead just so to increase their visual impact. Morris goes on to explore how sensitive we are to such charges today, and even how suspicious we have become of photojournalists, assuming, at times, that any good photo must be staged.

In the section of the book entitled "Photography and Reality (Captioning, Propaganda, and Fraud)," Morris takes up these concerns through an investigation of a picture taken by Ben Curtis on August 7th, 2006 in southern Lebanon in the wake of Israeli air strikes on an apartment complex. In the foreground lies a Mickey Mouse toy, one of his legs splayed at an unnatural angle. In the background behind the Disney icon is a street covered with broken glass and stones, an apartment building that is partially in ruins, and a dark red truck. "What is the viewer supposed to infer from such a scene?" Morris asks. Does it have to do with "[t]he juxtaposition of innocence and destruction"?  He poses these questions amidst a whole series of related rhetoricals about similar "toy photos" from southern Lebanon. Though Morris doesn't make the link, I thought here of Roland Barthes's seminal Camera Lucida and the discussion of Koen Wessing's 1979 photo from Nicaragua that depicts armed soldiers in the same frame as two nuns. The juxtaposition — or duality, as Barthes calls it — is noteworthy; the heterogeneity of the image makes the viewer pause. Barthes uses this moment to set up what will become the discussion of his terms studium and punctum. (The former provokes interest in the viewer by tapping into a shared cultural or political context, while the latter refers to a far more personal experience, where the viewer feels intensely "pierced" by the photo; together, these terms are fruitful in discussion of that question posed at the outset — what makes an image powerful? For me, the untied shoelace is the punctum, or penetrating detail, of that Justin Lane 9/11 photo.)

While Morris doesn't take up this opportunity to engage with Barthes, he does move his assessment into equally fertile ground, upping the ante when he asks if the toy photos, the Mickey Mouse image among them, are "disguised propaganda with a definite bias toward one side or another," pro-Israel or pro-Arab. Almost the entirety of this chapter ("It All Began with a Mouse") is an extended interview with the photographer of that Mickey Mouse image, Ben Curtis. "When you're covering destruction, you're always going to focus in on details, rather than general views of destroyed buildings," the photographer tells him; "the inclusion of the Mickey Mouse in the picture adds an element of humanity to it." Curtis may not have had a propagandistic agenda, as some of his critics apparently claim, but he has at the least an aesthetic agenda, and I think we can also push further. We could say that in introducing an element of humanity, he wants this image to "prick" (to use a Barthesian word) his viewer. There is a sting in the suggestion that a child's toy could be found in the vicinity of a bombing. It brings forward the horrible idea that children are casualties in war. All of this, of course, is extrapolation, and Curtis is careful to note that even his caption says nothing beyond the bare bones of factuality (time, place, specific events). Yet photographs, as Morris suggests, invite us to read into them. "But the picture of Mickey is powerful because it is vague," writes Morris. "Its vagueness allows us to imagine all kinds of diverse scenarios, depending on our political sensibilities."

So is it vagueness, then, that makes an image powerful? Morris was referring to the fact that Curtis's photograph has been judged a critique of Israeli forces for its potential emphasis on the bombing of a residential block, and it has also been seen as a critique of Hezbollah for using civilians as, in the words of one commentator, "human shields." Morris's notion of "vagueness" seems similar to the notion of "openness" that grew from the dinner conversation: The powerful photograph resonates in part because it conveys the gravity of a moment while simultaneously providing a malleable space for personal, political, or other points of identification.

In the end, Believing is Seeing aims to stir our thoughts on photography and to show that it is far more fraught a medium than how it was once characterized by Émile Zola, who, quoting the French physiologist Claude Bernard, implicitly gestured toward the camera's objective neutrality when elucidating the writer's objective: "The observer sets down purely and simply the phenomena he has before his eyes ... He ought to be the photographer of phenomena; his observation ought to represent nature exactly." The complexities of photography, and of how we interpret images, are also explored in Morris's chapters on FSA photography, the Abu Ghraib photos, and the case of an ambrotype (an early kind of photograph) of three children found in the hand of a dead Civil War soldier.

Though Morris takes Sontag to task, in fact his work is rather comparable to hers, and they come to some similar conclusions about photography. Morris's assertion, for instance, that "[i]mages are plastic, malleable, and lend themselves to any and every argument," is highly analogous to Sontag's claim in On Photography that "[t]he camera makes reality atomic, manageable, and opaque. ...Photographs, which cannot in themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy." Both seek, in a greater sense, to understand how photographs function. A key difference is that Sontag is more overtly political in her positions. Interestingly, while the vast majority of images that Morris spends time analyzing in Believing is Seeing are, in their way, political (mostly images from the context of war), Morris doesn't explicitly note this. In fact, the political dimension often feels secondary to other (albeit compelling) concerns. At the end of the Abu Ghraib section, he does deliver a personal political opinion, passionately asserting that the photos should be used to prosecute, all the way up the ranks, those "truly responsible" for the torture there. Still, I was looking for some broader understanding of why powerful images are, so frequently, politically charged. This would seem like an obvious question for someone with Morris's interests to ask.  But perhaps another mystery of photography is that the obvious is often overlooked, even when we stare right at it, again and again, across multiple images: a mystery we don't even think to try to penetrate.

LARB Contributor

Lauren Walsh teaches literature and writing at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. She is co-editor, with Ofra Amihay, of The Future of Text and Image: Collected Essays on Literary and Visual Conjunctures (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012).


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