Monday, August 19, 2013

Stretching the truth, or an outright lie? (More fun with Photoshop!)

ducks flying away, Photoshopped

original photo

This is a continuation of my last post, in which I discussed the ways in which we present our experience of the world (specifically of the natural world), and at what point creative license oversteps its bounds and becomes deceit.

When I left off, I was defending some examples of Photoshopped pictures, where I felt that the touched up example looked more like what I actually experienced than the murky original. Usually, I restrict myself to cropping and brightening the colors, especially as, in some of my photos, if I didn't do that, people might have trouble distinguishing what bird I was trying to photograph.

On occasion, I have also played with a photo a bit to try to capture the mood of my walk. For example, for the photos I used for my post "The Butcher Bird, My New Nemesis," I experimented with changing the texture using Photoshop, to create a more artistic or painting-like effect.

I had gone out on a gray and gloomy day, just before the spring equinox. I was looking for a bird which I never found; if I had, perhaps the triumph would have filtered my perceptions. As it was, it was one of those tail-end-of-winter days, and I was taken by how stark the landscape looked. Even without engaging my over-active imagination, I could picture using my surroundings in a suspense film. Sometimes, in this blog, my goal is purely informative, such as showing a certain prairie plant. More often, my photos are meant as examples to show where I went and what birds I saw, and I'm just hoping for a good image to match my words.

But on this day, more than anything, I was trying to capture the mood of the land. Since the day so so cloudy, my photos didn't look like much. Everything was drab and hazy, and to my eyes it hadn't looked so dull at all. Well, Photoshop to the rescue.

I was particularly taken by the fog rolling off of the power plant spillway. My original photo was so drab, I felt that it simply did not capture my impression. A bit of Photoshop, and it seemed much closer to what I actually saw.


And these spindly, spikey trees, silhouetted against the overcast sky. This whole area seemed so atmospheric. I had never really paid attention to it before (only my search for my nemesis bird made me wander here), and it was an interpretation of the natural landscape of central Illinois that I really hadn't seen before.


I have chosen the path of creative writing (creative non-fiction, poetry, short stories) rather than journalism or science writing because, for my personality and particular way of interpreting the world, I feel that the creative approach gets closer to the truth of my experience. What is the purpose of all this writing and blogging, really all the creative arts? The topics can vary, but at the heart of it, I think that the most important thing is making the particular into the universal.

If I can't convince you how important the natural world around us is, how endlessly fascinating I find it, how my feelings of awe and wonder and mystery are not my individual "thing" but applicable to you as well, then I have failed. And I probably do fail, frequently. But that won't stop me from trying again, using every creative tool at my disposal to better tell the truth.

Still, I don't think that means that honesty is not important, or that there is not a line that can be crossed. For example:

Cottingsley fairy photo
Back at the turn of the last century, two English girls claimed to have taken photos of real fairies that they saw in their gardens. At least one of them always claimed that she really did see fairies, and it was all the teasing she received that made them fake the "proof." Mostly likely, the hoax got much bigger than they anticipated, convincing the likes of people such as Arthur Conan Doyle, until they felt that they could not come clean. Regardless of their motives, we can probably all agree that this clearly crossed the line. Whether they really did see fairies or not, they knew the photos weren't real.

A similar forgery occurred in the birding world, in 2007, when a graphic artist from Kentucky faked a photo of an ivory-billed woodpecker, supposedly taken in the Cache River area of southern Illinois. Later, he confessed, claiming that he truly did see an ivory-bill, and faked the photo in the hopes that people would preserve the habitat. Obviously, this was dishonest, and while his intentions may have been good, in reality, this will just make it that much harder for the next person, who may have a genuine photo on their hands, to be taken seriously.

A literary equivalent might be the infamous memoir by James Frey, A Million Little Pieces.  In case you are not familiar with this story, the book was published purporting to be a non-fiction account of the author's rehabilitation for severe drug use and alcoholism. Apparently, the author's presentation of himself as a tough guy and a criminal who managed to get clean on his own terms isn't quite accurate. No one's disputing that he really was a drug addict, but it seems that many of the details--the most vivid and extreme incidents--were fabricated.

Although I never read the book (I flipped through it in the bookstore, but the tough-guy persona and stream-of-consciousness writing style didn't appeal to me), I nevertheless followed the controversy with interest. I'm sure all memoir readers must suspect that the authors are polishing and re-interpreting their experience (not to mention quoting passages of dialogue that I highly doubt that, literally speaking, they can remember), but this is not considered problematic as long as we feel, overall, that the author is trying to tell, to the best of their ability, the truth of their particular experience.

So at what point, exactly, did James Frey cross the line? In an interview with The Guardian, he states that, "My mistake, and it is one I deeply regret, is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience." I have to admit, as someone who has some very healthy alter-egos of her own, I can understand how this might happen. And it's a shame he did it that way, because that story, about how he really was versus who he imagined himself to be, and how these sides of his personality became addicted and then became sober, could have been quite interesting. Not that I am letting him off the hook. At some point, you stretch the truth enough, and it becomes a lie.

I don't think I've clarified, in my mind or in this post, exactly where the line is. These are my personal hard and fast rules:

1. I would never lie and claim to see a bird I didn't (whether it's rare or common). This is the ultimate birder's sin, and those who commit it will be endlessly pecked to death by starlings in the afterlife.
2. I would never give myself achievements I didn't have, or actions I didn't commit. Minor shifts in the time-line or compression of events to give better narrative flow are permissible.
3. I wouldn't alter a photo to the extent of making it unrecognizable from what I saw. Minor touch-ups are permissible.
4. I would never write about someone else, even if I changed their name and details, to present them in a false light. However, re-creating dialogue in my mind or writing detailed accounts of events in the past, in which some of the minor details (what someone was wearing, what we ate for lunch, etc.) are fabricated for a better narrative, is permissible. (In other words, if I said that my mom and I ate egg salad sandwiches at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and argued about Obama, when we really ate tuna fish that day and the Obama argument had actually happened the month before, no biggie. If she's a vegan and never argues politics, on that day or any other, we have a problem.)
5. I would never try to make myself look any better or worse than I actually am. Since I am both my own biggest fan and harshest critic, take this one for what it's worth.

And finally:

6. I would never tell lies about nature. No matter how beautiful the prairie was, if I leave covered head to toe in chigger bites, you will know about it. And vice versa.

So, do you read (or write) memoirs? Do you blog or journal? Do you enjoy photography? I would be very curious to hear exactly where you draw the line on being truthful.

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating post! Where do lies begin? As someone with, shall we say, an active imagination and a rich inner life, I would have to say it's wherever and whenever one is deliberately misleading or deceiving another. With birding, I won't list a bird unless I am convinced it was, indeed, that bird. I don't want a list of lies! I agree that the Photoshopped photos are much more atmospheric, cinematic. As long as one doesn't color a brown finch orange and call it a Java Temple Bird, as happened to my mother, who bought several at the dime store, and then watched as the colors came off in the bath, I think the images can be "truer" in a sense, to what the viewer saw and wishes to share. MOM PS Moi? Argue?