Misconceptions and Perceptions
Photographs are universal communicators, bridging the gaps that words create…except when they don’t. The photographer captures one instant in an image with specific intent, so what happens when those intentions are misconstrued? Sometimes, these misconceptions establish legacies that outlive the intentions. Alfred Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day in Times Square became an iconic image of postwar victory for reuniting lovers, except the famous embrace occurred between two strangers. The sailor later revealed that he grabbed the Austrian refugee and kissed her, while she was too shocked to react. Does this lessen the impact of Eisenstaedt’s emblematic image of restored hope and love?
Migrant Mother similarly maintains a legacy of authenticity propagated on the public that questions its reality. Dorothea Lange captured the woman and her children in 1936, the mother’s distant gaze and physical resignation emblematic of the Great Depression. One little-known fact about this recognizable image is that Lange edited out the woman's left thumb to better direct the viewer’s eye. Although seemingly negligible, this edit leads to further conversations on the integrity of a photograph that presents itself as documentary. The Native American mother’s visage rose to fame against her desire for anonymity. She hoped to spare her children the embarrassment of representing poverty in America, yet instead they became icons of many Americans’ plight during the Depression. The image not only represents victims of poverty, but it also symbolizes the continual neglect they faced, despite their visibility.
More recently, John Moore photographed a Honduran toddler sobbing while Border Patrol agents search her mother on the US-Mexico border. It immediately sparked political outrage and became the symbol of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that would tear families apart. But Moore’s photograph soon faced backlash when people learned that the two-year-old wasn’t actually separated from her mother, despite their assumptions. Suddenly, those who empathized with the traumatized child felt deceived by the image. Moore initially stated that he didn’t know what would happen to the toddler, but widespread misinformation extended to major news outlets and caused Trump supporters to signal Fake News. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that this misunderstanding detracts from the truth; it doesn’t lessen the fear that girl endured, nor does it lessen the injustices done to people seeking asylum.
Do these images deserve their recognition, accolades, criticisms? If photographs incur numerous misunderstandings but catalyze conversations, have they failed? They amass attention because they hold power, regardless of intention. The intention may not even matter once the audience defines its own. Multiple perceptions can co-exist because they stem from the same image. Visuals are more visceral than words, making them harder to ignore. Knowing the reality behind the camera can change the perception of a photograph, but not knowing often reveals public consciousness. The photographer cannot and should not be expected to regulate perceptions of her work once it enters the ether. It must be the viewers’ responsibility to parse through public assumptions and grasp the original intent, if they so choose.