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Forensic Epistemology

Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography), by Errol Morris, (2011)

The question of knowledge and what can be known is as old as literature itself. Even before the concepts of physos and kosmos [1], observations of pattern in the natural world were hatching in Babylonian omens and Sumerian riddles. Western philosophy has incubated these questions ever since, but their growth has been bounded by the problems of studying our perceptive organs with our perceptive organs. The problem of the reliability of perception and how we approximate the welt extends the epistemological current into the hearts of jurisprudence, aesthetics, semiotics, and even physics, deepening their lines and muddying their waters. Thankfully, this greatest of philosophical mysteries was declared solved in 1844 by William Henry Fox Talbot, who wrote in his illustrated serial The Pencil of Nature, ‘[The camera] may be said to make a picture of whatever it sees …. [Photographs] are impressed by nature’s hand.’ Contemporary photographic inventors Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and Nicéphore Niépce also avowed a mystical, or at least metaphysical, explanation of the disclosure of the image by Nature, and therefore the action of light upon sensitive paper as arbiter of the Truth. Thus, the invention of a mechanical device and chemical process capable of recording and fixing reality independent of human agency had solved the four thousand year old mystery of whether the human sensory apparatus was suitable for the acquisition of knowledge about the world. Or did it? Seeing is believing – or is it?

Folk theories of photography persist to this day and have in some sense become ghettoized by insistences that the aesthetic and forensic applications of photographs are pure and separable. The camera, like any other optical device such as a telescope, microscope or mirror, is subject to physical laws, and yet at times is seemingly helpless against the intrusion of inner experience. That the same camera can be employed to make geodesic measurements to a hundredth of a millimeter as well as Surrealistic collage means we are dealing with a device that can both superrectify and plumb human perceptive abilities. Thus photography works as a metaphor for the great elasticity of objectivity and subjectivity, empiricism and perspective, credibility and epistemology. That is to say, not only can we not step in the same river twice, maybe we can’t even step in it once.

Regardless of whether we come to photographs as pure art a la Stieglitz, or as forensic case points devoid of aesthetic considerations, individual images may be said to have individual histories. Filmmaker Errol Morris, in his recent book on photographic epistemology, inquires into the nature of the photograph as evidence. In six linked essays, spread across four chapters, we follow him down wormholes of history beneath the two-dimensional surfaces of iconic images by American photographers of five significant historical events: the Crimean War, the American Civil War, Abu Ghraib, the Dustbowl, and the 2006 Israeli airstrike on southern Lebanon.

Although Morris’s full-scale investigation of Roger Fenton’s twin Crimean War images is the only forensically concluded study in the book, the remaining five chapters are all the more interesting for their insolubility. We don’t need to know why at least four photojournalists made images of toys during the bombing of Tyre. What’s important is the mystery of what images actually ‘say’. Do they have meaning or merely propositional content? Or is the creation of meaning an interminable process? Can there ever be an answer to the question of what constitutes an ‘altered’ setting? What can be said about an image’s meaning when interpretations conflict? For example, the universes one enters through altered—or supposedly altered—images become limitless when the word ‘propaganda’ is invoked. Today ‘propaganda’ is a cheap operational term for whatever education program your opponents are using. But during the Great Depression, the term was less common if no less accentuated. During the FSA chronicling of dustbowl Americans impoverished by a rapid souring of the land, Arthur Rothstein’s insertion of a bleached cow’s skull into a documentary photograph became a touchstone in a media war over whether the drought was actually happening. Laissez-faire conservatives—angered by the prospect of their tax money funding an artistic project about the poor—claimed the photographs were ‘faked’ and ‘liberal propaganda.’ Were they ‘faked’ or weren’t they? Were they ‘faked’ in the same way the newspaper photos of Alexei Navalny and Boris Berezovsky were faked? In the end, it is semantic knots tied round the parcel of genre which must be untied.

Opinions over the nature and importance of factual accuracy in contemporary documentary and non-fiction literature continue to polarize. Investigation into James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces caused him a lot of grief that could have been avoided had he called it a novel. More recently, D’Agata vs. Fingal have duked it out over the limits of genre and truth value in storytelling; as well, the various ongoing struggles for the appropriation of meaning in war photography and memorials. These underscore the paramount importance of the relationship between text and context, memory and depiction, knowledge and the evidence of knowledge. Can text and context ever be separable? If not, how are photographs to be interpreted beyond aesthetic considerations? This question of how photographs have histories that other art objects do not allows us to draw the important connection between Believing Is Seeing and Barthes’ Camera Lucida, another sort of meditation on the epistemic value of photographs, through which we come to understand the inadvertent and sometimes emotionally wrenching details they can contain. The most ordinary photographs, such as Amos Humiston’s ambrotype of his children, are gateways to obscured worlds of memory and the ugliness that elegies and memorials of all kinds can bring to a boil. With the punctum of the image as a kind of token, a seemingly direct emotional relationship between you and a past event is formed, and around these interpretations of the past, beliefs and ideologies form as lichen.

And yet, Errol Morris does solve a lingering mystery about the past using photo-forensic techniques. Roger Fenton and his team did move cannonballs onto the road. Mysteries can be solved and objective facts about the past are, it would seem, knowable. There are absolutes, but like stars out in space we can move forever between them without establishing their nature or position. It seems to me that Errol Morris’s filmography, and now bibliography, is increasingly charting a course in forensic epistemology.  Perhaps even after the historical importance of McNamara et al have waned, his innovative structures and answers will remain.


[1] If Nature (physos) has an Order (kosmos), then that order should be intelligible. Thus, the beginning of Ancient Greek philosophy.

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