‘Photographs dictate our perceptions of reality’

Written in 2013 during the second year of my degree, this essay was my undergraduate response to the set title ‘Photographs dictate our perceptions of reality’.  It is interesting to look back on my work at that time and consider how it compares to my thinking now.

Extracts from the essay are below:

When we look at a photograph we are faced with a small fragment of a scene, a fraction of a second captured from an earlier time. These tiny reflections of the past have been isolated as a result of human decision, then transferred onto paper and retained as an image. The same fragmentary nature applies both to digital and analogue photographs as both processes are only able, at present, to provide us with the same limited representations of moments in time. Although in western society we seem aware of the limitations of the photograph as being static and selective, there are problems with our interpretations of photographic images and our reactions to them, mainly that we rely too much on these small visual fragments as accurate representations of reality in one place, at one time.   We have become so used to the presence of photographs in our everyday that, generally, we no longer consider their complexity or even their presence in our lives.

When questioning the notion of reality in photography, the fundamental problem is that every person has an idea of what reality means to them and so there is no clear way of defining in a broad sense the impact of photographs on individual perceptions.   However, if we are to question whether photographs are so real that they provoke ‘real’ human responses, then we can address this idea on a more general level. This essay therefore broadly considers the notion of reality in photography, how photographers employ different strategies to represent their ideas of reality, and whether or not photographs dictate the way we, in western society, understand our world.

[…] Photographs printed on a scale in line with our expectations of the size of the object itself will most likely be responded to as having more realism than an image we can hold in the palm of our hand.  Larger-than-life scale is also used, as this brings out the minuscule details of surfaces and makes us truly believe that what we are being presented with is the real thing.   The same could be said of macro- or microphotography whereby we are shown tiny details that are often too small to be noticed by the human eye itself. When presented with the detailed constructions of nature, we believe entirely in what we are seeing; we accept it as fact and absorb it as knowledge   We somehow seem unable to imagine that anyone might wish to fake, or be capable of faking, these tiny details of nature.

[…] “Sometimes the pictures in a gallery are so large that it is difficult to avoid the reality trapped within them” (Newton, 2001, p123). However, regardless of scale it still seems that we are somehow led into seeing the content as if it were present, and not the piece of flat, printed paper.

[…] Manipulation is frequently used in modern photography and results in a revised version of a scene, one that, although appearing natural, never actually existed in the form that we are shown. An example of this is the photography that we see in travel guides and brochures: Litter is removed, sunsets are enhanced and fence posts straightened in order to achieve an aesthetically pleasing photograph attractive to potential visitors. The scenery in such images shows a level of perfection not in line with ‘reality’, yet we change our behaviour and make decisions based upon what we are presented with; we place our trust in it.   Whether we are looking at a news image that prompts us to donate to charity, or a photograph of someone deceased that brings sadness to us, we respond whether we like it or not and this is response could be considered as dictatorial. This reaction is most likely prompted when a photograph is reflecting something we are familiar with in our own life or culture, be it, for example, war, poverty, marriage, childhood, or ageing. Whatever the subject, if we recognise it, we will respond to it and this response interrupts a path of thinking or behaviour that will have been present prior to seeing that image. Barthes described this interruption as a ‘violent’ one that “… fills the sight by force” (1980, p91) succinctly describing this involuntary interruption to our thoughts and (possibly) actions.

Kracauer argues that a photograph only achieves its aim “… if it precludes the notion of completeness [and] … it’s content refers to other content outside that frame “ (1960, p19-20).  This could be said of all photographic images as it is the case that any photograph not only involves the frame or the represented scene, but also the photographer and their entire surroundings and circumstances at that moment. One further method used to include information from outside the frame is to add captions, titles or descriptive text. When an image is combined with text, although the initial forceful visual nature of the image arrests us, the response may be strengthened once the text is read and absorbed. “Descriptions are performed as parts of actions which are, in turn, embedded in broader sequences of interaction” (Potter, 1996, p47). It is this broadness of interaction that realism in photography seeks to achieve.

[…] Use of handheld cameras and unstructured photography can also add to the realistic appearance of an image. We have become familiar with television reports showing blurred surveillance images and untidy cuts of live news events. We are also familiar with the snapshot style of images taken with handheld cameras and mobile phones that are shared daily on social media. Semiotics is often used intentionally in photography to reinforce a message or idea, but these rapidly produced images imply realism, as they have been taken without any planned encoding. The use of semiotics increases the time it takes for an image to be decoded or understood. It also increases the time taken to create the message in the first place. In snapshots, we understand that they are more random, more encompassing of the scene than a planned shot would be, and so we rely on them as realistic representations of what happened at that moment. Stephen Shore’s 1970s series ‘American Surfaces’ used the snapshot to record and document his experiences of daily life. The work documented Shore’s journey across America, including images of empty dinner plates or the view inside his bathroom. These rapid shots gave us about as much reality as we could get from a static image at that time, though our minds must still work hard to fill the story of that moment. Shore’s use of colour film was relatively new at the time, and some may argue that the colour aspect is also necessary in creating a realisitic photograph. Bate not only describes the snapshot as having “naïve realism” but also considers the arrival of colour photography as the “new reality” (Bate, 2009, p63).


Ideas of reality continue to provide challenging debate for photographers, artists and theorists. The main problem of these discussions is that, although the issue of reality in photography arises frequently, there is no fixed idea as to what ‘reality’ is, and therefore no tools for measuring how realistic something is. It could be argued that realism in images is measured by the amount of work our minds must do to fill the blanks. Prior to photography, distorted perspectives or incorrect scale in art was commonplace, which acted as a barrier to our belief that what was being presented was a true representation of a scene.   Photography, in particular colour photography, removes much of that mental picture-building work. In moving image we see yet more of the scene and so the amount of speculation is reduced further and we accept the scene as being even more real. As technology progresses more forms of photography and techniques will be developed for our use, each one striving to reduce the work of the human mind in building the remaining scene. Whether it is 360 degree imagery, multi dimensional, increased layers of colour, or even directly connecting with the human brain, this development process will continue until we achieve images of the reality we know, or as close to it as is technically possible. “Reactions to photography … have shown that progress in pictorial lifelikeness creates the illusion of life itself” (Arnheim, 1974, p137).


Reality is all encompassing. It involves every sense, every emotion. Our fullest sense of reality can only apply to the very moment of existence that is now, and which we are experiencing from our own perspective. The question is whether this ‘now’ can ever be fully represented in a photograph and whether it will translate to an equivalent moment of reality for the reader of that photograph. Although visual perception theory acknowledges that the human mind has a tendency to see familiar sights in photographs as real, it cannot be avoided that every reader imposes their own self upon what it is they are seeing thus adapting the represented reality with their own, and overwriting the intended ‘reality’ of the photographer. There will therefore always be conflict between ideas of reality and theories of photography, as reality is something that remains an individual internal experience, and so to even attempt to externalise or create indexes of reality onto paper is futile.   It is likely that human frustration surrounding the desire to experience reality in an image will continue through many processes as we possess “… an inherent desire to enter and inhabit into an image” (Qianhui & Kin Wai Michael, 2011). Perhaps, eventually, society will accept that no single image can match what we perceive as ‘real’.

Considering the arguments made throughout this essay the question remains as to whether photographs do or do not dictate our perceptions of reality.  Consideration has been given to some of the ways in which photographers strive to create real responses in the viewer, although measurement of realism, or indeed of perceptions of realism, remains an impossible task.  According to Newton the photograph is “… the closest thing … yet invented to a non-minds-eye-created-picture” (2001, p21) however, photographs lack the active cues for interpretation that reality provides us with and therefore it could be argued that photographs never reflect reality, they only ever hint at possibility.






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