The Retreat of the Real

The rise of digitized images has led many journalists to worry about credentializing any photo that comes their way. That skepticism is starting to spread:

Bloggers, who had already appointed themselves watchdogs over reporters, editors and producers, were now taking on photographers. While the goal of increased transparency in the media is laudable, it may foster greater cynicism about journalistic ethics. “Photographers were always able to manipulate pictures in the darkroom,” says Keith Morrison, a former Calgary Herald photographer who is now publisher of C-ing Magazine, a publication about photojournalism. “But now, as the public gains awareness of digital photography and Photoshop, they have stopped trusting the pictures in newspapers and magazines.”

It’s part of a larger cultural malaise about “what’s real:

Themed restaurants, McMansions, virtual life and multiple personas online — we live in a world where authenticity (whatever that means exactly) can feel overwhelmed by slick substitutes and made-up realities. Pictures can be photoshopped, performances can be lip-synched, and the exotic destinations we visit can be about as real as packaged tours and paid local dancers. We have Olive Gardens that are not gardens and whole towns that are themed to please.

So, what is real? What is deeply, indisputably authentic today? And why do we long for more of it, in our world and ourselves?

Trademark law can police the authenticity issue for some products, and may help us out of the “fake photo” question. Secondary authentication techniques are used for many products–e.g., an embedded code that can be matched to a database on the trademark owners’ website. By analogy, a photog who wants us to take his/her picture seriously may embed it with steganographically with assurances of its unaltered nature.

I’m less concerned about the “Olive Garden” or “am I really being true to myself” question. Survival in a modern market economy means being pretty protean. Angst over authenticity is also an epiphemenon of affluence (or perhaps a symptom of affluenza), and as I’ve suggested before, a country as leveraged as the US is not likely to have the luxury of that problem for long. (More on the “revenge of the real” here.) A future for some rising nations might be glimpsed in a film like “The Shopaholics,” where concerns about “self-transformation described in the language of authenticity” are forsaken for a madcap pursuit of luxury products.

UPDATE: Just noticed this indictment of the US as “land of the fake:”

Meyer, NPR’s new editorial director of digital media, can rattle off plenty of examples: corporations that profess to care about you, the words “managed care,” and reality shows that promise a shot at love with a celebrity called Tila Tequila. Those are some of the gripes to be found in Meyer’s new book, Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium.

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