… photography helps us to simplify, and to lie to ourselves about the world.
This is from the essay ‘Misunderstanding Images: Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris’ which is an interview between Morris and Joshua Oppenheimer, found in Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence edited by Joram ten Brink & Joshua Oppenheimer (2012):
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Joshua Oppenheimer: In Standard Operating Procedure I have this feeling that you’ve done something that is quite profoundly similar, but also different than The Thin Blue Line in that it’s we, the public, who are the people who have misperceived the evidence. And that misperception of the Abu Ghraib photographs, which was encouraged by the government, has led us to misperceive ourselves and our own complicity or involvement or engagement in what happened, and what was continuing to happen when the film was released.
Errol Morris: One thing that’s absolutely clear to me is that the photographs worked to the advantage of the administration, and you would say, well, how could this possibly be? Wasn’t this one of the worst scandals in American history? The answer is, yes it was, but in the end, it focused attention, I believe inappropriately, on a very small group of people who were responsible for little or nothing, and directed attention away from people who were far more complicit in what happened in that prison.
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JO: Subjected to the wrong interpretive framework, the photos themselves slip into the blindspots that lie between them.
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EM: … it’s interesting that in order to deal with history, and it probably goes well beyond photography, we have to de-contextualize it, we have to simplify it, we have to put it into some narrative form where we can understand it, because the complexities of history are just unfathomable otherwise.
… We don’t want to see a story as being grey. We want to see it as being black and white; we prefer to leave it that way, because it offers answers to our social concerns. And history, of course, falls victim to that kind of thinking, history becomes a kind of cartoon, a gross simplification of what is really happening, or what really happened. And photography helps us to simplify, and to lie to ourselves about the world.
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EM: … the job of documentary, if there is a job, the job as I see it is to capture; you can’t ever be successful at doing this, so the futility of the attempt is also of interest, but it’s to try to the best of your abilities to capture the complexity of reality. Of incorporating something of the real world, and its complexity, that informs the story. And if you do that, that’s a noble enterprise. Simplifying things crudely to some ordinary kind of narrative doesn’t particularly interest me, because then it doesn’t really do anything different than the expected. Particularly with the narratives that will be the least controversial, and the most easily taken in.