What is nonfiction

Updated: 2019-04-01 • I’m working on a working defintion. You can expect occasional updates to this page.

5 questions to ask

Forget about Photoshop for now. 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?

Here are 5 questions I’ve been taught to ask a picture:

  • 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?

(These are the questions I trust my clients, editors and audience to ask my pictures, too.)

WTF is nonfiction, tho

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, or 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. Food for thought:

Working definition

You need a picture that reads and, right now, my composition does not read “Giant Walking Stick.” Right now the picture is just an undifferentiated mess of tree bark.

This is the first time I’ve even seen a stick insect, and she is surprisingly difficult to photograph.

She moves so slowly. She barely moves at all, other than to mimic the swaying oak leaves as the breeze picks up: It’s going to storm.

Here underneath the tree canopy it’s already too dark for photos. I can’t get my shutter speed up fast enough to freeze the insect’s gentle swaying motions. The absurdity of this blurry, slow-motion dance makes me laugh out loud.

How am I going to get a usable image?

Time is running out. I’ve got 2 minutes – maybe – before the storm clouds sweep in between me and the sun, blocking the light. A few minutes after that, the storm will arrive here and I won’t want to be outside at all.

I’m heat drunk from working outside all day and it’s hard to think.

A few fat rain drops fall ahead of the storm. 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.

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

But, hang on… Could this work as a picture? Frame the insect in profile, hanging upside down from the oak limb. She will pop out from the background. 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 feels all wrong.

The picture now reads clearly enough but it is no good. It’s misleading. Because I moved the Walking Stick (then framed the image so it looks natural, not staged) I can’t use it. Delete.

Swearing at myself in the dark, I carefully pick the insect up again and return her to her original perch.

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?

Cold rain crashes down hard and wets my neck.