Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography by Errol Morris
“Our beliefs do not determine what is true or false. They do not determine objective reality. But they do determine what we see.”
In Believing Is Seeing, Errol Morris investigates the complex relationship between documentary photographs and the truth we assume they deliver. Best known as the gifted documentarian behind films such as The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure, and The Thin Blue Line, Morris has spent years pondering how authenticity, truth, and appearance converge and complicate one another. It is hardly surprising then that Morris’s analysis of documentary photography is insightful and accessible.
Errol Morris’s cinematic explorations often fixate on a specific figure or series of events. He then breathes life into the topic by artfully combining provocative interviews and extensive research. Believing is Seeing successfully incorporates this methodology while simultaneously deconstructing the very notion of documentary veracity. The book consists of essays, each one describing a case study in which documentary photographs created controversy, conflicting interpretations, or troubling implications. Morris elucidates both the context and reception of each image with interviews and archival research.
He also analyzes both contemporary and historical images, demonstrating that many of the same issues and questions have been recurring since the advent of photography. Whether the photograph was taken in 1855 during the Crimean War or in 2003 at Abu Ghraib, our collective tendency to equate an image with a finalized truth has been problematic. To borrow Morris’s succinct phrasing, “…photographs allow us to think we know more than we really do. We can imagine a context that isn’t really there.”
When we engage with photographs that supposedly depict real circumstances or events, they often emerge as decontextualized fragments. They might trigger certain emotions or ideas, but that does not mean they were designed to provoke those responses. If we assume that our associative and subjective interpretations of an image reveal some profound or inherent truth, we might not be cognizant of the image’s broader meaning – why it was chosen to circulate in the public sphere; what discourse or ideology it can be used to support; what the photographer’s intention was in capturing that particular image. Morris explains how images often circumvent our critical reasoning: “In the pre-photographic era, images came directly from our eyes to our brains and were part of our experiences of reality. With the advent of photography, images were torn free from the world, snatched from the fabric of reality, and enshrined as separate entities. They became more like dreams. It is no wonder that we really don’t know how to deal with them.”
Throughout Believing Is Seeing, Morris gradually teaches readers how to deal with documentary photographs. More specifically, he equips us with questions to ask, perspectives to consider, and examples to consult when we see that latest glut of images in the newspaper or on TV. For me, Morris’s commentary on the photograph’s relationship to transparency was especially memorable. When we look at a realistic photograph (as opposed to an overtly artistic one), it often appears to be a self-contained glimpse of a real moment or experience. But images are inherently characterized by a troubling mixture of presence and absence. For every revelation, there is also omission, some detail or nuance that has been suppressed or marginalized.
The photograph’s assumed transparency is at the heart of many of the controversial cases Morris explores in Believing Is Seeing. Time and again, it seems the public is too eager to associate an image with reality--and reality with truth. As Morris’s essays demonstrate, the process of creating, distributing, and interpreting photographs is rife with opportunities for manipulation or simple misunderstanding. It isn’t enough to think about what we see. We should also question why we see it that way. If we evaluate an image from multiple perspectives and then decide what to believe, we might see the layers of meaning and potential embedded within the frozen glimpse of reality a photograph seems to neutrally document and capture.