What is nonfiction

Updated: Apr 01 2019 • I’m working on a working defintion. You can expect occasional updates to this page.

Forget about Photoshop. Don’t worry about deep fakes. The real question isn’t about techno-phantoms. The real question is the same as always: who trusts you?

5 questions to ask

These are the questions I’ve been taught to ask. These are also the questions I trust my clients, editors and audience to ask my pictures.

  • Where is it published?
  • Why publish it now?
  • Who made it, and who is it for?
  • How can I verify it?
  • What did it cost, and what’s the payoff?

Working definition

She is surprisingly difficult to photograph.

You need a picture that reads. Right now my composition does not read Giant Walking Stick. It just reads… tree bark.

This is the first time I’ve even seen a stick insect.

She moves so slowly. She barely moves at all, other than to mimic the swaying oak leaves as the breeze picks up.

The trick to photographing any well-camouflaged creature is to visually separate the subject from the background.

It is almost too dark for photos now. I grab the penlight from my pocket, click it on and hold it in my teeth. If I can’t visually separate her speckled body from the background, maybe I can use extra light to throw the tree deeper into shadow?

A few fat rain drops start falling, and it smells like dust and acorns. I gently pick up the creature and let her crawl along my arm. She is bigger than I expected, and I take a snapshot to show my nephews.

How am I going to get a usable image?

I’m heat drunk and tired from working outside all day. I can’t think.

“You doin’ ok, mama?” I ask her. She replies by walking up and down my arm looking for an escape route, so I set her on a convenient (well, convenient for me) oak limb. She hangs upside down.

But, hang on, this could work as a picture: I could frame the insect in profile, hanging upside down from the lichen-flecked oak limb, which is thicker around than my thigh. She will pop out from the background and maybe the image will finally read Giant Walking Stick.

I hunch down and try to steady the shot between wind gusts and my own breath.

Immediately it all feels wrong. I moved her there. It’s not right.

Does it matter?

Spitting the penlight out of my mouth and swearing at myself in the dark, I carefully pick the insect up again and return her to her original perch. I delete the photos.

The wind is tearing through the oak canopies with violence now. I stand there watching the stick insect climb up. Up, until the dark hides her. How many of these trees have their own creatures?

Rain crashes down and wets my neck well before I make it to my car.

WTF is nonfiction, tho

As soon as you flip a stone trying to find an answer for a question like that, you start to realize that there is a whole rock field full of creepy-crawlies in front of you.

It comes down to context and trust. It is about the relationship between photographer, photographed and audience. Who trusts you to point that camera in the right direction?

Is the problem that Art Wolfe’s “Migration” was Photoshopped, the way he responded to criticism, or the way he captioned his images?

“Photographs quote from appearances. The taking-out of the quotation produces a discontinuity, which is reflected in the ambiguity of a photograph’s meaning. All photographed events are ambiguous, except to those whose personal relation to the event is such that their own lives supply the missing continuity. Usually, in public the ambiguity of photographs is hidden by the use of words which explain, less or more truthfully, the pictured events.”

– John Berger, “Appearances,” Another Way of Telling by Berger and Mohr (New York: Vintage International, 1982), 128.

If Marcio Cabral’s anteater is fraud, why is Robert Dosineau’s kiss so easy to forgive? Seems worth chewing on for a bit. It doesn’t go down easy. I don’t think it is meant to. Food for thought: