This week I was talking with my colleagues, Jon and Matt, about the recent memoir scandals. If you don’t pay attention to that sort of news, two recently published memoirs have been outed for being wholly fabricated. In one, the story of a daughter of Holocaust victims was shown to not even be Jewish. In another, a middle-class white girl told her story as a mixed-race drug runner among the gangs of L.A. Literature has, of course, a genre for these types of stories called fiction, but instead these authors chose to, like many others, position their story as true accounts.
Also this week I was talking with my friend Sarah about photography and art. She’s a photographer herself, so I e-mailed her an article entitled, “Is Photography Dead?” The article traced for a novice like myself the history of controversy surrounding photography as an art form and its trustworthiness for depicting truth or reality in the Photoshop age. Sarah made the good point that photography has always chosen to show some things and not others. Even if it’s not photoshopped, it’s composed with light or angle to highlight certain things and cropped to leave out other things. Every photo leaves out more than it includes, I guess you could say.
I discussed these memoirs with my colleagues and the nature of photography with Sarah when I realized that, in many ways they have similar symptoms. Memoir and photography both purport to show reality as it is and to give the facts. This may not be the intent of the writer or the photographer, but that is the understanding of the general reader or viewer (and everyone knows it). “As any publisher will tell you, memoir sells better than fiction.” It’s a “question of sincerity and authenticity. Memoirs are seen as more authentic than novels.” The same is true of photography. The viewer believes that what they are seeing is not derived from the photographer’s imagination.
At the same time, both attempt to show that reality through a finite lens and not without bias. Both have a vested interest in putting forward a picture of reality that grabs the attention of the reader/viewer. That way it reaches a broader audience. This inclination, however, leads away from “sincerity and authenticity” and toward sensationalism.
It is a strange paradox that readers’/viewers’ values of authenticity are threatened by their desires for the sensational. What’s more is that, when forced to choose, some publishers and photographers will essential manufacture both. They will photoshop a memoir beyond anything genuine in order to make for a sensational story. But the sensational isn’t sensational by the mere fact that it’s not true. It’s only truly sensational if it actually happened. In the same way, some photographers will fictionalize their art for the same ends. And in the end, both the sensational and authentic are ruined by man’s manipulation of them for his own ends.