Nothing is so obvious that it’s obvious. When someone says that something is obvious, it seems almost certain that it is anything but obvious – even to them. –Errol Morris
Ostensibly an article about determining the sequence of two photographs taken during the Crimean War, Errol Morris’ epic three-part article in the New York Times becomes a rumination on perception, the uses and limits of technology, historical accuracy, and ultimately, the nature of truth itself.
As we have progressed into the digital age, there has been widespread angst about the role of machines, data mining, and programming in the humanities. There is fear that humans will play a diminishing role in interpreting data. But what about the fallibility of humans?
In both this article and in a separate piece for the New York Times “Photography as a Weapon”, Morris uses photography to explore the ways that humans can (rightly or wrongly) interpret technology. In some cases, it may be a question of facts. In other cases, it may be that the viewer is limited by the choices made by the photographer including his/her decision to frame a shot in a certain way. Or it could be that the viewer is influenced by an emotional response to photograph. Or an image becomes so pervasive that people stop really looking at the photographs themselves and instead see a cultural or historical narrative.
The Vietnam War, the war abroad and the war at home, has been reduced to a few iconic images — the Napalm girl, the girl at Kent State. What seems to emerge from major events and eras are one or two images that effectively embody the emotion and rage, the happiness and anger. –Hany Farid
Yet, this is not a limitation of photography. To paraphrase Morris, paraphrasing Shakespeare, “…the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our photographs but in ourselves…”
There are many things that the majority of Americans accept as “obvious.” People of my parents’ generation hold one such deeply held belief; the obvious fact that the horrors of the Vietnam War were broadcast to them in their living rooms, every night, on the evening news. A quick google search reveals that this narrative is commonly accepted as well as the widespread notion that the media played a huge role in the growing discontent with the Vietnam War. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have heard this story anecdotally. Yet, in an excellent book called The “Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam, Daniel C. Hallin analyzed The New York Times and evening news broadcasts from 1965-1973. His analysis challenges the conventional wisdom that television showed the “literal horror of war,” and turned the public against the war.
Morris and Hallin were not afraid to challenge assumptions. Both relied on technology to draw their conclusions. Yet, I would argue that humans will always be needed to direct this research, and to ask the questions that need to be asked, whether using data mining or more traditional methods.
This is a great responsibility.
Fortunately, I was able to glean a few words of wisdom from Errol Morris’ article: never be afraid to see things, “the other way around”; “always look for small things”; and never, ever, use the word obviously.