Lying to be true

I just watched a bit of a dvd called The true meaning of pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia. He photographs people in extreme poverty and though he is an outsider to that experience he is of Appalachian blood himself. As he put it: he constructed the photographs but these were real people with real stories, people that were his friends. One black and white picture has an old granny, her face deeply creased, three prominent moles , a largely toothless mouth and a pipe stuck in it.


He has been criticized for producing a stereotype because she resembles the granny in L’il Abner (and his other photos are criticized for supporting the old stereotypes of hillbillies that we have gotten from Deliverance, L’l Abner and many other sources). But the fact is she looks like that and smokes a pipe, and Adams says that it is ridiculous that his picture should be judged just because this earlier stereotype exists.

I had something similar happen once. A friend and I were trying to write a screenplay based on a story we had run across in the Village Voice where a recent Polish engineer immigrant (unsuccessful) had murdered his wife (also a Polish engineer immigrant but successful) . The story was really and expose on the inadequacies of the mental health facilities (he had been in treatment, had actually said he was going to kill his wife, was released, killed her). We started writing this and tried to work in all the information we knew as accurate. Here was the problem: his name was Adam and her name was Eve.

In order for this not to be perceived as constructed we had to remove something true.

32 comments on “Lying to be true

  1. “They” say there is sometimes some tiny bit of truth in stereotypes.

    I think “Sweet Home Alabama” the movie was really played up stereotypes!

    I may be a bit overly sensitive being from Texas and my maternal half from northern Alabama, but it does get old seeing the same stereotypes about southerners.

    But as with other groups who get portrayed as stereotype such as Asian, African Americans, Native Americans, etc. I suppose it could have been worse since I am of German and Scotts-Irish descent.

    But living in Berkeley/SF I was really shocked at how people would fake a hick/southern accent when saying something meant to be asinine.

    I guess everyone is a little tribal maybe…

  2. Yeah, I remember defending stereotypes in one of my classes. As I recall, my arguments were that as a child I had many ethnic stereotypes, almost all good, that made me feel good about other groups (in fact, I kind of wanted to be one at the time too). Through stereotypes the world became a happy cartoon like place. Of course, it could have gone the other way. The thing despite our best intentions we generalize everything. Someone who looks like our best friend is probably a good person too, a German will have a certain way, etc, and often we are right. It would be a very strange world where generalizations were not true. As long as we remember they are the broad strokes.

    Just thought of this so its rough but perhaps good and bad stereotypes have different sources. Good are inclusionary, a way of communication whereas bad are exclusionary, a way of distancing.

    And of course I have the advantage of being Northern European so I haven’t had the bad experiences others might. Would probably change my tune then.

  3. My ex was Asian and even the good stereotypes worked against her. Some believed well your Asian so you must be smart adn good at math. She was held to higher standard in the sense she wasn’t compared to everyone, only other Asians. She was probably better than the average American in math, but that’s not saying a whole lot!

    I agree that ST work as either exclusionary or exclusionary, that’s a more specific way of saying we are tribal. I should say dynamically tribal.

    And then another example of the positive stereotype that works against you, is like what happens to my friend Carlos. He gets the “your not like those others” or ” your a good Mexican, we need more like you”. Kind of robs him of his identity in a way. Even the “I never noticed you were Mexican or wern’t white” is still kinda backhanded compliment.

    But I think you nailed it on the ‘these are broad strokes in which we understand the world, its our nature, its how we act that matters’ hope thats an accurate distillation of what you said πŸ˜›

    Just finished a 2 hour ride and I am a bit loopy …

  4. I do take your point that even the good stereotypes can work against you. Lets just call it a method of acquiring info early on and then getting a little better at processing that information. I do know that though I cannot say I am free of stereotypes I know enough people that I realize that if you have something like that in place, you better hold it off until you know more. I do know that the worst thing I would want to be in Canadian culture is aboriginal. Talk about absolutely overwhelming negative stereotypes. I ended up working for a man who confounded all those though I am sure he suffered from them. An example of stereotype application gone funny is that because he was managerial and his looks were malleable, people often thought he was East Asian rather than aboriginal.

    Its a messy subject and potentially damaging on the personal level but I was trying to understand it from the encountering and processing the new world angle. Make generalizations and then fine tune possibly to the point where the generalization is discarded.

  5. One thing I’ve wondered about along these lines is… the in group vs out group.

    So when we Southerners joke about being a redneck or white trash etc its ok when we do it, because we are calling out a behavior or characteristic that we see as not the acceptable norm. But when someone outside the group does it whether trying to joke or not, it then comes across as judgmental or disparaging.

    Not sure if I am communicating this well.

  6. Kind of like when friends call each other asshole or jostle each other. Somehow intimacy is conveyed through mock assault.

  7. Well we call each other “loser”. Although I am known as “moody little bitch” πŸ˜›

  8. It’s weird how he made this picture of a very plain, toothless old crone really sort of beautiful.

    I’d say he busted a stereotype by finding the beauty in a cliche that usually depicts homeliness.

  9. Also the pic is taken with a wide angle lens so clearly the photographer felt comfortable being closer to the subjects in the photo. Also the line of sight of the photographer is lower than the subject. So reading into this from a Visual Sociological standpoint, the subjects are portrayed as on the same level if not slightly higher than and closer implying a sort of intimacy with the viewer.

    Compare that to other photos of Appalachian folk who were often photographed a distance and where the photographers line of sight was above the subjects, implying a certain superiority.

    I agree something not usually shown in photographs of Appalachian folk (and those who are not in the mainstream urban society) is revealed in the photo.

    An aside…
    With digital photography available, my preference when photographing people (for documentaries) is to simply ask how they would like to be photographed and show them the photos on the laptop and let them kind of direct the photography with the photographer more as a technician and advocate rather than the “benevolent dictator”.

    I see no good reason to think I know better how to capture the subject than the subject, to think so is elitist and something I wish photojournalists and documentariians would change about their practice. Although yes sometimes its not practical, it depends on the job. But I’ve seen photos and talked to enough f them and done enough myself to know you can involve the subject more than we do!

    That isn’t a comment on the photographer. The photograph seems to have been captured in a compassionate way, and I am not saying someone can’t be benevolent, just that most aren’t.

  10. You know ginzu, I half agree with what you say but only half. There is a reason one person is the photographer and the other the subject. One has chosen that form of self expression and even though you may wish to uncover or display some essential aspect of the subject (whether people or rocks) you cannot help but express yourself. Once the subject is involved (and I guess the rocks example can’t hold here) it starts to be about their sense of themselves rather than their actual selves. I know that when I get a chance to select a picture of myself it will always be the most flattering…great photographs avoid that and jump to what I think is a deeper truth.

    When you look at older family portraits you always see that face; the face the subjects thought you should put on for this special formal occasion. They were selecting, and though there is a lot of cultural information in that, they also manage to edit out some of the differences among them. They become more generic.

    My brother, who is a pretty decent photographer, spent the last three years in Korea. It annoyed him that everyone seemed to do kind of a vee sign everytime you snapped them. Its another method of the subject controlling the action…sure you take the photo, but I’m throwing this in.

    I guess I’m a traditionalist at heart and I do believe the artist has a special knowledge and that they should be in control. Its why I never believed in interactive narratives; the choose your own ending structures. The reason I read novels is because they tell a story better than I do.

  11. Well you are talking artists. I was talking Documentarians and photojournalists, and they are not exactly artists, they are sometimes advocates, sometimes information gatherers, but not so much artists. Not saying there isn’t an art to documentaries and photojournalism. But they abide be different laws, rules, aesthetics, and standards with their subjects than there purely artistic counterparts do. And by subject I mean specifically people.

    I always found the challenge in photojournalism to capture what you the photographer best conveyed the mood, the people, the pathos, logos, etc all in a single shot that was technically adept- easier said than done of cos.

    I personally don’t like contrived photos, well except for some manipulation in post πŸ˜› eg lighting, color and comp…

    So I guess I am quibbling over definitions. If the photographer is wearing their journalist/documentarian.researcher hat then I think there is an ethic that ought to be abide by and also along Habermasian principles of communication as well.

    If they are wearing the artistic hat, then “anything goes” pretty much in my book πŸ˜›

  12. BTW Shelby doesn’t sound like that much of an outsider


  13. See this is good. Power of web allows me to spout off and for you to either agree, challenge, or fine tune what I say, or just call a needed Bullshit!! from time to time. I def stand corrected on the documentarian issue…didn’t know about that distinction..though give me time and I might argue that in that case too subjects need to be lmited in their input.

  14. ginzu98- I would never have noticed those aspects of the how the photo was taken. That’s interesting.

    I think you both have a good point about involving the subjects in the work or not. It would be cool to see side by side a photographer’s vision of a subject, and then the interactive product.

    I wonder which would be the more dynamic set of photos. I wonder which would be the more honest set of photos.

  15. That would be good. I have a cool book called Double Take which compares famous photogrpaher’s takes on the same material and it really shows how little objectivity exists in this realm.

  16. Aos you didn’t like spouting via email? πŸ˜›

    I agree there is balance, I mean a subject could potentially make a photo meaningless. There is always balance, but I had to argue froma bit more extreme POV to make the case πŸ˜›

    Years ago I had started a Documentarian’s Manifesto, never completed it. A lot of the Visual Sociology and Anthropology began to catch on in the 2003-2005 years, so I didn’t see the point anymore.

    They do an exercise as Amuirin describes.

    There is also a debate on “actuality” vs “reality” that’s quite contentious and interesting.

    I wanted to do a doc on people with Dementia. My plan was to take the video and do the “waking life” effect to it now that it doesn’t have to be done all by hand, as a means of preserving their dignity. I’d still have to clear it with their family of course. But most people I talked to early on were ok with it, if their loved ones weren’t so easily identifiable and so that was my solution.

    I had a grandfather with Alzheimers so its a story I’d like to tell. My other concern was masking the video with an animation effect would possibly diminish the “reality”. But then again my point was really more about how Dementia affects the family and friends of the one suffering the disease, since we can’t ever really know what the person with dementia is thinking 😦

    Ok, sorry that was a total digression.

    Well off to ride in the Texas heat πŸ˜€

  17. The title of this post made me think of V for Vendetta, one of my very favorite movies. Evey says that her dad, an author used to say, (I’m paraphrasing) “Artists use lies to tell the truth, politicians use lies to cover up the truth.”

  18. Good quote! But what annoyed me about the film was covering up the wonderful Hugo Weaving’s face. Always been a big fan of his work esp in The Matrix.

  19. Him remaining masked was sort of imperative to the storyline, though.

  20. It’s a great photograph, both artistically and technically.

    Portraits, good ones, are the ones taken after the subject thinks no more photos are being shot. I prefer candid images, and while the above is certainly staged, it maintains some degree of candidness (is that a word?).

    You could argue stereotypes are assigned by the people viewing the images, not the artist/photographer. S/He is presenting a subject. How that information is processed and assimilated is in the mind of the viewer.

    STs are based upon a shared belief. Is there a grain of truth behind these? Some. German tourists act dictators when on vacation? True, in some cases. The Chinese are bad drivers. True, in China. (a last will and testament is needed before a journey in a taxi.)

    Is it the artists’ job to dispel misconceptions or present their vision?

    I rambling now, asking questions with no answers. Great discussion.

  21. That brought me to an interesting idea. What if the photographer set out to document stereotypes by finding true examples and then of course having a show. What do you suppose the reaction might be? (Assume no constructed photographs).

  22. The photographer would be labeled a bigot and it would be said he/she went looking for the images excluding all else.

  23. You could document stereotypes and then contrast it with equally non-constructed non-stereotypes. Sort of a confirming and contradicted photo of each stereotype…

  24. Like that idea. As long as it doesn’t come across as too pc. Maybe one stereotype among a group rather than a dichotomy. You might be able to go to someone revelling in their stereotype..”I am (insert ethnic identity here)”..
    Maybe you could do the obvious stereotype photo and then have contributory text from the individual about it…..taking back or owning their stereotype….like a German obsessed with beer and order but proud of it, and proud of the fact that it is associated with being German. (Actually in the movies, minorities (and there is a word that doesn’t quite mean what it should) often take ownership of stereotypical qualities and trumpet them…”Of course I can cook, I am Chinese….”

  25. When are y’all gonna get started?

    I’ll make popcorn.

  26. Nah we’re all just talk…

  27. AOS I like that idea too, but would see it as more of a doc than a photo essay.

    Oh, man would you get in you trouble though πŸ˜›

    I can hear Rosie O’Donnel now!

  28. You’re all hitting the nails squarely on their heads, so I’m not sure why I’m putting in my 2 cents worth. However, pc nonesense makes me want to vomit. It represents the neutering of creative expression and the establishment of some culturally, and sometimes politically or legally, sanctioned thought control that is just as insidious and dangerous as anything in 1984. Some upper echelon, politicians, academics, the Masons (my point being: who is making these decisions?), tells us what is “good” and what is “bad”. It’s okay to hate Nazis and Al Qaida but it’s not okay to hate jews or hispanics, or America. Personally, I have never engaged in either activity, prefering, instead, to examine the complexities of an issue without finding some boogeyman upon which to pin my fears, and then, once I have come to some conclusion, expressing myself in whatever way I see fit. You can dismiss it, or you can agree with it, but don’t you tell me I can’t say it. I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but it is related to this “stereotype” discussion: Who is objecting to Adams’ portraits? Liberal East Coast Yankees, West Coast Hippy Hangovers, Conservative or Liberal Southerners? No matter who it is, as has been pointed out several times in this discussion, they are bringing these “stereotypes” to the images. The roots of their objections are what concern me. Do affluent, educated, white southerners feel uncomfortable seeing white people live this way? Do they raise the same objections to pictures of black Haitians living in extreme poverty, or pictures of Canada’s aboriginal people living in extreme poverty? I’d be willing to guess that they don’t. At any rate, the image does not create the discomfort, the viewer does. Take a snapshot of some guy sleeping in the shade, wearing a huge sombrero and a poncho, with an empty bottle of mescal beside him, and somebody will surely say, “Mexican stereotype”. But what if the guy in the picture is some gringo vacationing in Tijuanna? The pc boob has applied a stereotype that doesn’t have any relation to the photo except the one that he/she has applied to it.

  29. As to what Kirtvocals said along the lines of being PC.

    I guess I lump PC into a larger behavior that seems to always want to pad and protect our fragile egos from the world. In the US, whether its restriction of speech as not to offend anyone, or smoking bans on private property, or the Wingspread notion of “Safe”, it all seems to deny the “reality of life” through political process.

    Life is unfair. unjust and impolite on occasion.

    The US government seems to be taking on the role (above and beyond what seems reasonable to me) of the over protective parent, who insists on solving all are problems and leaving nothing for us to work out ourselves.

  30. I’m thinking that I should somehow start a new post to continue this record breaking discussion or if someone wants to do that on their blog??
    My last little thing about this is my anoyance, and don’t know if this is exactly either kv or ginzu’s reckoning but could it be that that paternalism somehow leads to the blamelessness of the individual when it comes to stupidity ie I trip and hurt my shin and I look around for someone to sue because surely I can’t be a lazy oaf…stella awards (which documents stupid lawsuits) included one where someone was attacked by a squirrel outside the mall and sued because the mall let the squirrel get out of hand and didn’t post warning signs etc…..not the same thing as being an idiot but also a case where someone who isn’t me should pay….if anything at all goes wrong with my life someone other than me should pay…and of course the old chestnut….I kill because I had a deprived childhood.

  31. I would recommend you post it, if I do it, I’ll feel like I am poaching.

    2 parting quotes

    In this world there is always danger for those who are afraid of it.
    George Bernard Shaw

    Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.
    George Bernard Shaw

  32. I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.

    George Bernard Shaw

    ok I’ll think of a new way to continue this….might be a couple of posts down the line…but should solve the problem tonight unless someone comes up with a good line to start it with/

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