Know Thyself

By John Long

“Know thyself,” Socrates (among others) told his students. It sounds easy but it is the hardest thing in life to accomplish. Ultimately I do not think it can be totally accomplished; only strived for. With self-knowledge comes the ability to find “accuracy.” It is the door that allows one to see past “truth” to the real.

Let me back up a bit here: I had an email from a student of mine, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. William Greeson Jr., asking how to find “accuracy” as opposed to “truth” in his photojournalism. I have always made it a point in my lectures to say that journalists are not in the business of providing “truth” to the readers and viewers but rather our mandate is to provide information that is “accurate, fair, and – hopefully – complete.”

“Truth” is a loaded concept. It is too tied to your beliefs, your heritage, your time and place. What is true for me might not be true for you. There is a great line in the movie “The Great Waldo Pepper” where the hero says something along these lines: “Any writer can provide accuracy. An artist provides Truth.”

The great Holy Grail of journalism is accuracy; truth is the Holy Grail of religion.

It has been confusion over these terms that has caused much of the confusion in discussions concerning ethics in photojournalism.

People who believe that photojournalism should provide “truth” to the reader see no problem with electronically tampering with the content of photographs, while those who believe that “accuracy” is paramount believe that nothing should be changed in any documentary photograph beyond the basic toning functions used to make the photograph readable. (These would be the basic tools of the grammar of photography such as dodging and burning, contrast control, color correction.) To change the content of a documentary photograph in any way other than technically is to create a visual lie. The moment demands that the photograph presents to the reader exactly what the photographer saw and captured in that split second. The moment is inviolate. It has nothing to do with truth; it has everything to do with accuracy.

One of the great heroes of our profession was W. Eugene Smith. The book Let Truth Be The Prejudice contains his greatest works and on the cover is his famous portrait of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. The hand and the saw in the lower right hand corner of the photograph were added from another negative. The photograph is not accurate. Smith felt though that the photograph was a truthful portrayal of Schweitzer since it captured his soul. For him this was photojournalism. For me it is no longer an honest photograph as I believe in the total supremacy of accuracy in photojournalism.

“Fairness.” Fairness is how we determine what is accurate. Fairness means we know our prejudices and acknowledge our point of view. Fairness means we struggle with the great Greek philosophical mandate to “know thyself.” Knowing where we are coming from and where we stand in the continuum of life allows us to evaluate accuracy. If our worldview is clouded by parochial misunderstandings we cannot judge how a fact or a photograph or just about anything reflects reality in an objective way.

In order to judge accuracy we need to be able to see life from others’ points of view. And to judge the accuracy of a photograph we need also to understand the grammar of photography, the process of visual communication in a two-dimensional box printed on a page or displayed on a computer screen, an isolated moment with no smell or taste or feeling attached. The accuracy of a photograph depends on the conventions we use to understand the symbolism of the process. For a photograph is not reality, but a symbolic representation of a single moment. The accuracy of how it displays that moment depends on our understanding of the photographic process and our clear understanding of who we are as human beings.

“Know thyself” is a life-goal articulated by philosophers from Socrates to The Matrix, in Western philosophy and in Eastern philosophy. It is Zen, it is Khalil Gibran.

To pursue objectivity is our goal as journalists. To obtain it is impossible in this life. To approach it is sufficient.

And yet, without passion for your subject, of what value is accuracy? And doesn’t passion come from knowing the “truth?”