Recently I reviewed the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris's new book, Believing is Seeing, for Bookforum. An excerpt:
In Errol Morris's new collection of essays on photography, he details the controversy over the New York Times's misidentification of a torture victim in a notorious Abu Ghraib photograph. In the image, a hooded man draped in a poncho stands on a box, arms out, wires connected to his fingertips in an accidentally Christ-like pose. On March 11, 2006, the Times identified the man as Ali Shalal Qaissi—nicknamed "Clawman" because of his deformed left hand—and ran a photograph of Qaissi holding the by-then iconic photograph. Within a week, the paper printed a retraction explaining that Qaissi was not, in fact, the man in that particular photograph—the real hooded man is named Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh. As it happened, on May 22, 2005 the Times had correctly identified the man as Faleh; but when fact-checkers were trying to confirm the 2006 story, they missed the earlier article due to a faulty set of search terms. Morris suggests that this error occurred because of our willingness to believe what we think we see, regardless of available data. Had post-liberation photographs of Qaissi depicted his deformed hand, it would have been immediately apparent that the Hooded Man was someone else. "It is easy to confuse photographs with reality," Morris writes, arguing that we look at this photograph and believe it to depict a moment of torture being carried out on a person we have since identified. "Our beliefs about the picture are confirmed" when we look at it, he adds, "except that we know nothing more than when we started." "It is often said that seeing is believing," Morris continues. "But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around."
Morris's single-minded drive to figure out the "real" stories behind a series of photographs may lean too heavily on the idea of a single truth that can be gotten at through research, but the questions he raises along the way, as well as the glimpse we get at his sleuthing techniques, makes this a compelling read.