Can the truth be changed?


Jens Jäger

To person

is a Heisenberg scholarship holder and professor for Medieval and Modern History at the Historical Institute of the University of Cologne. [email protected]ö

Our ideas about the past are shaped by images. Special personalities from history, events, people, places, landscapes are present as images, partly in the role of contemporary witnesses, partly as later visualizations. The immediacy of images, their apparently easy to decipher content and their aesthetic design make them easy to understand information. Images open a specific access to the past.

At the same time, they influence history. It was and is easy to argue with images and to change them afterwards, and this seems even easier in the digital age. This is a global phenomenon that affects all political systems, because images are undoubtedly and have long been important conveyors of information and knowledge, but also of opinions, without any manipulation or deliberate falsification. But if a picture is not abstract or is obviously intended to serve another purpose, for example above all aesthetic enjoyment, we reflexively assume that we can trust the truthfulness of what is depicted.

Why is credibility and truth expected from images at all? Can pictures lie, as is repeatedly claimed? [1] What is the special cognitive value of pictures? Can they be the key to "historical truth"?

Belief in images - skepticism of images

The reflex of wanting to believe pictures stems from the fact that they seem to allow the viewer a great deal of freedom in judgment and the artists, as it were, only convey the world. Images initially seem to provide direct information about reality, especially when it comes to representational representations that imitate the visual impression or are based on it. Because images can be linked to the individual experience of the viewer, the impression can arise that the visual experience in front of the image is aimed directly at the object shown and the subjectivity of the representation takes a back seat - the more realistic the depiction, the more so.

From the Renaissance onwards - at least in European painting - the aim was to reproduce objects as closely as possible to the human visual impression by refining the technique. [2] The central perspective put the viewer in a privileged position, as the visible seems to be oriented towards the seeing individual, who is thus placed in the center of the world. Added to this was the idea that the ingenious artist truly depicts the visible world - that also means comprehensively depicting the inner essence of things or events. A picture should also make it possible to see what is absent and to experience it individually.

As a result of the technical revolutions in image production and image distribution from the 19th century, images became ever faster and available to an ever wider audience. The fundamental notion that the world as it is can be represented by images has outlasted these developments. At the same time, technically produced images have moved into the center of this notion: whether analog or digital, moving or still images, they are ascribed to potentially depicting reality truthfully, while artistic representations are allowed far more subjectivity.

Partly for technical reasons: Photographs and film recordings appear as the result of a recording process that is not subject to any human influence. The expectation is correspondingly high that they will provide information that goes beyond standpoints and interventions. As early as the presentations of the first useful photographic processes in 1839, the extensive independence of this type of image production from human abilities was praised as the great strength of photographic technology, which made it the most "objective" form of image. [3]

Little has changed in this basic assumption. This is due to the fact that photographs usually do not contradict everyday experience: the shapes and details shown are very often perceived as correct, and correspondences are established between the image object and reality. In this way, concrete people and things, buildings and landscapes or even conditions and events can be identified quite well that are known from personal experience or trustworthy sources. This assumption is also transferred to photographs that cannot be compared with personal experience. In addition, photographs are related to other images and descriptions of the object. In principle, an entire network of media representation is available to check the reality content of an image.

It becomes more complicated when it comes to links with bodies of knowledge that do not result from the image itself, but are created by those who use the image. Meaning and interpretations, value judgments and interpretations, connections and assertions can then be controversial. Here the banal facts that a picture shows can collide with anything but banal meaning. Tensions are created that arise from the connection between "true" picture statements or details and "wrong" interpretations or ascriptions.

If images contradict everyday experience and existing knowledge, they are viewed with skepticism. If they are consciously designed as an expression of opinion, such as a caricature, viewers are prepared to see a certain opinion and therefore direct their skepticism not against the image itself, but against its author. The more realistic a picture, the higher the expectation that it will reproduce its motif independently and truthfully, and the more likely it is to act as a witness, with all the reservations that accompany testimony. Accordingly, the accusation of lying mainly applies to representational representations.

Lying pictures?

Strictly speaking, a picture cannot lie in the traditional sense - it shows what it shows. However, this does not mean that images are passive objects in a communicative process. Images can very well work out of their own accord, evoke reactions and generate a whole range of emotions, ranging from sober intellectual argument to the deepest disgust. A lie, however, requires an awareness, just as the will to truth does not come from the object, but from the motivation of the one who produces and uses it. So when the accusation against a figurative image is raised that it is lying, there is the wish that the image creators should convey reality.

However, there is seldom a consensus on what "reality" was or is, and the same state of affairs can be assessed very differently. Likewise, the perceptions of people and things can differ widely. It is easy to understand that in religious art, for example, it is less about depicting the external appearance of a person or a situation, but more about stimulating, strengthening and deepening the faith. Also, the point of reference is not the material world, but the source of God's revelation. But it is always about "truth", which images are supposed to make sensually perceptible. [4] The external appearance of things, people and facts is rather secondary.

In the broadest sense, this applies to every form of image and at all times - it is rarely just about what is depicted. Therefore, images are also part of social debate and are therefore significant as historical sources. But images are no more truthful or more realistic than texts, for example. Each picture is excerpted, only depicts partial aspects of (past) reality and is specifically embedded by the user in contexts that generate its meaning. The credibility of images therefore always depends on who creates and uses images for what purpose and in what form, as well as whether the image is consistent with the existing knowledge, i.e. is plausible and does not contradict other images or findings.

In 1986, the journalist Alain Jaubert compiled numerous photographs that were retouched or whose appearance was changed by selecting and / or enlarging the detail. [5] Sometimes people, sometimes details, were removed from a photograph, sometimes situations were created by copying in people that never took place in front of a camera. Yet these photographs contain information and - if you will - particles of past reality. However, the truthfulness of the entire picture cannot be inferred from a realistic detail, nor does the desired statement, which is usually controlled by attached picture captions or texts, become unquestionable documentation.

This applies not only to the use of photographs in dictatorships, but can also be found in all political regimes and all social contexts and - usually in a milder form - even in private photo albums: Photographs are edited, cropped, combined with other images and provided with text, that tell a story that does not necessarily have to do with the situation, time and place of the photographed event.

Even though photographs are often given a higher claim to authenticity due to the technical conditions in which they were created, the statements based on them are not per se more credible. They only become so when there is clarity about the conditions of creation and processing as well as use. Their "truthfulness" also arises from the interplay between the credibility of the photographer, disseminator and technology.