Framing Nonfiction: Suspension of Disbelief in Post-Fact Photography

One of the most beloved phrases in theatre and performance studies is the term “suspension of disbelief,” which was coined with respect to fictional works of literature in 1817 by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, best known as one of the principal figures of the Romantic movement in literature alongside fellow Brit Williams Wordsworth. Coleridge created this term to describe the reader’s willingness to suspend their disbelief of the narrative’s plausibility in order to fully immerse themselves in the experience of the work. In doing so, the reader readily accepts and agrees upon the reality presented by the author as valid.

Since Coleridge’s time, various other fields have used the term to specifically describe encounters with particularly ‘fantastical’ works of art. From Victorian Gothic horror to contemporary science fiction, what counts as fantasy has democratized as our own taste has diversified. These days, ‘fantastical’ is ostensibly a permanent fixture of our daily experience of reality. This is in no small part because of the emerging lens and ‘filter’ of post-truth photography. What do I mean by this phrase?

Perhaps — if I may borrow a term used by political scientist Francis Fukuyama — it is better to use the words “post-fact.” In this era of smartphones and AR/VR — think Snapchat and Oculus Rift — there is this question of what is ‘fantastical’ and what is ‘factual.’ This is less a matter of definition but of desire: which do we care about more? What version of reality are we willing to suspend our disbelief for? Which one have we agreed on to be valid?

Comparing the inauguration crowds for Obama (2009) and Trump (2017) | Source: © NYTPolitics/Twitter

This epistemological equation is not a mere philosophical exercise. We encounter it — and must solve it — every time we see an image, specifically a photograph. While early photographs (such as the stained cyanotype, a favorite of the botanist) are remembered first and foremost as forms of documentation, the democratization of photography, particularly with the popularity of daguerreotype studios, quickly gave way to the distortion of reality — or what we might call fantasy. Since those early days of photography, the photograph has become a stage upon which the past becomes the eternal present, infinitely interpretable by the viewer’s range of disbelief — and it continues to be so today.

For an example of photography’s ability to compel the viewer to suspend their disbelief, let us consider the story of 19th-century war photographer Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death, which are two photographs of the same subject: the aftermath of the Crimean War. Often considered as some of the earliest images of war, the two photos depict a road populated by cannonballs — remnants of the violence. In the left photo, the cannonballs are scattered on the road. In the right photo, the cannonballs are scattered beside the road. Said to be taken on April 23, 1855, which one is the original?

Both versions of Roger Fenton's "Valley of the Shadow of Death" (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Both versions of Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death | Source: Wikimedia Commons

To add more confusion, this site was originally named “The Valley of Death” by the British soldiers who fought there and suffered through the violence. When the photos were later published and presented to the British public in September 1855, the name of the site has been changed by Thomas Agnew (who commissioned the photos in the first place) to “The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” which was a clear Biblical reference to Psalm 23 and the anticipated deliverance of those suffering in the name of good. With Agnew’s amendment in mind, scholars and artists have over the years debated furiously about the originality of these images. In 2007, the award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris went to the site of the photo and investigated the story, concluding that the photo without the cannonballs on the road is the original version. More recently, the Radiolab episode “Truth Warriors” also investigated this story of the two images.

Possible Modern-day Valley of the Shadow of Death, according to Errol Morris (Source: Errol Morris)

Possible Modern-day Site of the Valley of the Shadow of Death photos, according to Errol Morris | Source: © Errol Morris

Now, if Roger Fenton was not a war photographer, and this photo wasn’t introduced as an image from the Crimean War, we wouldn’t be so bothered about which of the two images was the original. But because Fenton’s role is in documenting reality, we are presented with the epistemological equation of ‘fantastical’ versus ‘factual’ — and which one mattered more.

It is likely that Fenton staged the other version — whichever one you want to believe is the ‘other’ — in order to make a more dramatic impact befitting the title and, in doing so, lead the audience into a suspension of disbelief. The power of the work lies in this deliberate dramatization of the subject as an “eternal present,” as the final road traversed by the soldiers who have given their lives to a noble military cause. The ambiguity over originality only helps to amplify the narrative effect, even though it is at the expense of authenticity.

Staging the Particular Photograph

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.

– Susan Sontag, On Photography

How exactly does photographic power work? In her treatise on photography — titled, aptly, On Photography — the acclaimed writer and essayist Susan Sontag equate photographs with atoms, as a form of distilled and discrete units of visual information. She wrote, “Through photographs, the world becomes a series of unrelated, freestanding particles; and history, past and present, a set of anecdotes and faits divers. The camera makes reality atomic, manageable, and opaque.” Even though the essays in On Photography were written in 1977, it is as if she’s describing our current obsession with social media photography; it is as if the quote is talking about Instagram and its beloved grid format.

We’ve come to accept that a person’s life is more ‘authentic’ when it is literally framed and in the perfect squares of a 3×3 grid, self-centered in more ways than one. We’ve suspended our disbelief so much that we have to call out said suspension with the hashtag #nofilter. This version of reality is so compelling that, when Instagram began testing a 4×4 grid in lieu of the iconic 3×3 grid, people started freaking out.

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Say it ain't so @instagram. There's talk that the powers that be are toying with the idea of switching our Instagram grid from three photos across to four. This would cause major headaches for those with an eye for design and who plan out themes in their Instagram feed. Case in point @beyonce. I love how she posts her photos in groups of three. I've been attempting to get better at planning out my feed. If you go to mine, you'll notice I do a graphic post on a Wednesday and a Friday, which are separated by an image on a Thursday. From Saturday to Tuesday, I capture three images. What do you think? It's the end of the world as we know it? Or am I just a bit too close to all of this? #instagramgrid #beyonce #instaplanning #instagrid #socialmarketing

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An example of the Instagram 3×3 grid in action, courtesy of Beyoncé | Source: alanadagwell/Instagram

In this social network age, the contract that binds our awareness and understanding of one another is one written in saturated filters and manicured Bitmojis. This power of the social media photograph is also known as the “Pics or It Didn’t Happen” phenomenon. What we refer to as ‘authenticity’ is really what is easily digestible and shareable as a form of social information. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and nobody has the time to read a thousand words anymore (the irony of spelling this out in a long-form article is not lost on me). What results is a tacit agreement on a version of reality that has allowed the proliferation of memes, GIFs, and other forms of democratized visual shorthand, which, while great for sharing, is not exactly great for fact-finding. And so, we arrive in the present era of fake news & hoaxes — because with this frame of willing disbelief in place, we will only ever be able to communicate in equally minute and “freestanding particles” of information, without a critical engagement with the rest of the community. How then do we break free from the confines of the manicured white frame?

Breaking Down the Frame Itself

Photography is much more than what is printed on photographic paper, transforming any event into a picture. The photograph bears the seal of the event itself, and reconstructing that event requires more than just identifying what is shown in the photograph. One needs to stop looking at the photograph and instead start watching it.

– Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography

In her book The Civil Contract of Photography, cultural theorist Ariella Azoulay lays out her argument for how we can awaken ourselves from this perpetual state of disbelief. Firstly, she recognizes the power of the photograph as a frame of reality, noting the audience’s ability to “turn a still photograph into a theater stage upon which what has been frozen in the photograph comes to life.” She transforms the audience from a “spectator” into an “active participant” — or what we might call a citizen.

The contemplative act, which previously characterized the museum subject, has thus been replaced by the subject as civil spectator who watches the image in order to view its conditions of fabrication and the new possibilities for intervening in what it frames.

If the viewers of Fenton’s dual image had signed on to Azoulay’s proposed civil contract of photography, they would have taken the reality presented by Fenton as one not just to look upon, but one to act upon. In doing so, the photograph becomes a two-way mirror where conversations and change can occur — not the current one-way mirror reminiscent of interrogation rooms. How many times have you seen a photo on your phone and judged the photographer and/or the photograph’s subject matter prematurely because it does not ascribe to your interpretation of ‘authentic reality’? In Azoulay’s argument, the epistemological equation of ‘fantastical’ versus ‘factual’ becomes a modern social contract, updating Rousseau’s so that we can progress forwards as a species without leaving our most vulnerable behind. If we cannot ‘see’ reality — with every one of its imperfections — how can we possibly improve it?

The Civil and Civic Photographer

Azoulay insists on the photograph’s moral responsibility to inspire change and action at a tangible level — but not all photographs, nor all photographers, can achieve that lofty goal. One of those who can, and did, was African-American photographer Roy DeCarava, one of the most influential photographers in defining the conversations of the Civil Rights era. At a time when African-Americans were fighting with their lives for the right to a free and equal reality, DeCarava captured intimate moments of their existing reality to make it more relatable to the American public. In his best-selling book The Sweet Flypaper of Life, DeCarava collaborated with iconic poet Langston Hughes to tell the story of a black girl in Harlem in the 1970’s. Quite literally, Hughes’ poetry framed the photographs that DeCarava took in the Harlem he called home.

The Sweet Flypaper of Life | Source: artemusjenkins/Vimeo

These words, fictional by nature, made these images also fictional — but DeCarava’s expert composition and framing of his subjects remind us that, although we can enjoy these characters as they are, “caught in the sweet flypaper of life,” we are also reminded of the pain their real-life counterparts suffer in pre-Civil Rights America. Meeting their gaze, we viewers look through the two-way mirror and, hopefully, are inspired to take action on behalf of the oppressed. In describing some of Decarava’s most iconic works, Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole said that “[i]nstead of trying to brighten blackness, [DeCarava] went against expectation and darkened it further. What is dark is neither blank nor empty. It is in fact full of wise light which, with patient seeing, can open out into glories.”

DeCarava’s images are not unlike social media images that we encounter in our everyday lives (or feeds), but they are captured via the filter of relatability, rather than that of shareability. These are the images we can share and we should share, for the progress of our society.

Take nothing away from DeCarava (and Hughes in this instance as well) — this balancing act of creating intimately dramatic and socially impactful art is an incredibly hard one to achieve. Consider the story of Humans of New York, a photo project by New York-based photographer Brandon Stanton. When it first began, people were immediately smitten by the honest and sincere stories that were captured in Stanton’s photographs and words (captions). This, they say, is the right response to the “Pics or It Didn’t Matter” phenomenon. Once HONY (to use its popular acronym) grew in popularity and became increasingly mainstream, people started to question its authenticity. Many think pieces were written on whether HONY’s overuse of sentimentality is overshadowing the hard and difficult conversations that could and should happen with relation to some of the people featured. Rather than an antithesis to the manicured Instagram post, is HONY actually falling into the same trap, because there is no true civic contract available for viewers to act upon? After all, many of these stories start and end with the caption — like particles of stories packed within the infinite scroll of your social media news feed.

Source: Humans of New York/Instagram

To be fair to Stanton, HONY has responded to the criticism and are now telling stories that are not as ‘perfectly manicured’ as before; much more complicated stories. Supporters of the project have also acknowledged its limitations, recognizing that HONY “is not journalism as we know it [but] is explicit about its moral aim to humanize the headlines; to dig beneath the numbers and reveal the human stories that might make audiences empathize with the suffering of distant others.” DeCarava himself recognized the power of capturing the photo first — even if it’s for what some might call sentimental reasons — before necessarily turning it into a tool for change.

“What I wanted to do was find within the black community itself — I was looking for humanity. People — these are people. Before they’re black, they’re people. And this is what I’m concerned about.”

– Roy DeCarava

Hopefully, as HONY continues to grow and mature in format and scope, it will eventually reach the ideal civil contract that Azoulay theorizes about and DeCarava managed to capture in his beautiful black-and-white prints.

In Pursuit of the Dialogical Performance

As photographers try to reach that ideal civil contract, we viewers cannot and should not be complacent either. As we think about how we function in today’s post-fact society as consumers of knowledge and information, it might be helpful to consider yet another beloved phrase in theatre and performance studies: the “dialogical performance,” first coined by ethnologist Dwight Conquergood in his essay Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance. Conquergood describes the following “moral map” for the ethical performer. We can apply the same principles to the ethical audience member.

Conquergood's "Moral Map" (Source: History of Performance)

Conquergood’s Moral Map | Source: History of Performance

The map is divided into four quadrants of ‘pitfalls,’ each describing the failure of the audience to capture the ethical and moral considerations of a performance. At the heart of the map — what we are all aiming for — is the ideal act of the dialogical performance, which is a “kind of performance that resists conclusions, it is intensely committed to keeping the dialogue between performer and text open and ongoing.”

More than a definite position, the dialogical stance is situated in the space between competing ideologies. It brings self and other together even while it holds them apart. It is more like a hyphen than a period.

– Dwight Conquergood, Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance

A performance doesn’t exist with the performer alone, just like a photograph doesn’t exist with the photographer alone. Both need an audience, and as conscientious audience members, we have a responsibility to pursue in our act of experiencing the work a “dialogical stance” as well. Rather than the perpetual suspension of disbelief, we should be suspending our arrogance and cynicism in the same way Conquergood’s ethical performer is avoiding the moral pitfalls of performance. We should instead believe in the power of civic dialogue, and extend our gaze outwards, reaching out beyond the screen in pursuit of human contact and conversation. Far more effective than a direct rejection of social media norms is the use of those norms and today’s digital platforms to discover and create new contracts founded on the principles of civic responsibility and moral recognition of each other. Inasmuch as the ethical photographer is trying to create new windows of conversation, we viewers and audience members of visual information must also cultivate an empathetic mindset and search for those windows; these frames that seek an audience, not unlike an arm in search of a body, not unlike a hyphen in search of a story to continue telling.


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