Photography is a true record of the world

Photography is used as a true record of the world, and has become so overwhelmingly trusted and accepted as a source of the truth since the early days of photography. The saying “a picture tells a thousand words” is very true of photography. The image captured can be an accurate and detail record of an event, place or person that would be difficult to describe with the same accuracy with just words.

Photography is used to create records that are used by governments, to build archives as collective memories for nations. Photography is widely used in industry and manufacturing, science, archaeology, town planning, exploration, medicine, by journalists, the police and forensics in legal cases.

Photography is also used as a social means of communication that has built up a huge record of what people do, where they go and what they see.

In the 1830s, the photographic techniques improved and developed, photographic images were being taken to and some of the pioneers of photography saw that it could be a replacement for direct observation, people no longer having to visit a place, a photograph could be taken of a place or event and viewed as an aide for memory. Fox Talbot could see a time when photographs could be, a trusted duplicate of important documents, no longer the need for type setting to publish multiple copies of books. Photography was perceived as a tool for accurately, objectively, and permanently documenting the world. Fox Talbot published photographic books of ‘The Pencil of Nature.’ In 1844, the series of books contained images of places, objects and paintings.

This was commented upon by Fox-Talbot in the Pencil of Nature 1844. “One advantage of the discovery of the Photographic Art will be, that it will enable us to introduce to our pictures a multitude of minute details which add the truth and reality of the representation, but which no artist would take the trouble to copy faithfully from nature. Contenting himself with a general effect, he would probably deem it beneath his genius to copy every accident of light and shade. it is well to have the means at our disposal of introducing these minutiae without any additional trouble, for they will sometimes be found to give an air of variety beyond expectation to the scene represented.”

Why photography is used as a true record of the world:

Objective photography

Photographs are frequently used to produce unbiased image or documentary records. The capture of impersonal images that are not influenced by feelings, interpretations or prejudice is called objective photography. Objective photography is not intended to be a creative process, but a method to make a clear journal, record or evidence of something, events or objects based on facts.

Use in Industry

Photography is used widely in industry to record manufacturing, machinery, buildings and processes, these are used to build records of good practices or when things go wrong to study and try to identify faults in manufacturing. Cameras can be placed inside machinery to record what happens in a manufacturing process, to be become the eyes inside the machine, these images can be captured as a records and evidence for quality purposes.

Photographs are taken and retained by construction and engineering companies to build records, progress reports that can be referred to about the construction techniques or components used in building large structures such as bridges, skyscrapers, roads. There are historical photographic records of these types of constructions and structures such as old or ancient buildings, the roads, railways and canals. These types of photographs are used today as a rich resource for restoration or reconstruction of old structures. These photographs show a record of past, long-ago buildings, and forgotten places. Sean O’Hagan in the Guardian said on the photographic work of Bernd and Hilla Becher “a reminder, if needed, of their relentlessly detached vision.” Guardian 3-Spetember-2014

Dickensian: Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Mine Head. Photograph: Bernd + Hilla Becher

Use in Archaeology and History

The archaeological Photography is used in the process of recording historical objects, where they are found and the condition they were in by the use of photographs, and the recording of the removal of the remains. The photographs themselves become historical documents and records of finds available for later research and memory recall. The use of photography in archaeology, had started as early as the mid-nineteenth century, with photographic surveys of ancient monuments and buildings before and after restoration work. Photographs were and still used for, identification of national landmark campaigns, restoration records. The photographs form major component of photographic archives retained by museums and national collections.

Use in Science, medicine and healthcare

Photography is used extensively as a means of making factual records in science.  Photographs to record plant and animal species, before photography this image information had to be painstakingly recorded by artist’s drawings and paintings.

Photography used in scientific research to help in the identification of plant or animals, as a tool to count numbers of creatures or to monitor changes in populations, over time. Ecological monitoring and management requires detailed information often gathered by photographs that can be studied and compared, providing objective, consistent, and cost-effective results.

Scientific researchers rely heavily on photography to study objects too small to be seen with the naked eye can be clearly recorded in photomicrographs taken with the aid of optical or electron microscopes. High speed events can be captured with high speed photography to freeze action and the events studied in detail. Cameras can be encased and protected so that they can go into hostile and extreme environments and record things in places that humans could never go, from the deepest depths of the oceans to outer space and even other planets.

The miniaturisation of cameras has enabled photographs to be taken of what would have been inaccessible places, cameras can swallowed and pictures taken as the camera passes through a body, inserted into cracks in buildings or structures to investigate how extensive a problem could be. Cameras inserted inside living organisms or into the homes of creatures to study their behaviours such as inside ant nests.

Bumble Bee warming gathering nectar and pollen by Lucy Younghusband

Use in Geography

The study of geography use photography to record and survey, to study and improve our understanding of the world. Aerial photography, is used to help make maps and charts, to study the Earth, forests, rivers and the oceans. To record the weather and cloud cover that is used in the prediction and forecast of the weather. Cameras aboard satellites and space vehicles have photographed the Earth, as well as the moon, the sun, and the other planets. Astronomers use photography to study galaxies in deep space

Use in Anthropology

Anthropology can capture valuable information, what people are doing, social interactions, wearing their surroundings, how to make things, what tools were used and how they were used or technologies that were used by a particular group of people at moment in time. Eg. Typewriters are now considered a museum piece because the technology has been replaced by the word processor and the computer. The industry and tools to support the manufacture or use of typewriters has disappeared in a similar way as the flint axe tools of Stone Age man.  The wide use of the mobile phone photograph, the ”selfie” and the obssesion of people photographing, family events or the food they eat has recently added greatly to the photographic records that will be come a rich source for anthropolical study over time. I discuss the use of photography in social life and social media in greater depth further on.

Woman using typewriter (Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

Use in news

Photography and photojournalism is a respected profession, to record action, events, places and people that is news worthy. The images captured by photojournalists are used to enhance a journalist’s story. This can be from a photograph of an object that enriches a story to political leaders meeting or the showing the aftermath of a natural disaster or the horrors of war and acts of terrorism.

Photographic records have been used to record unspeakable crimes that would or could have remained silent or forgotten. Photographs of crime, cruelty and war have been used as evidence to aid the conviction of criminals, military and political leaders of war crimes. The photographs form a personal and national memory and historical archive that can be catalogued and shared in the hope that such acts are not repeated.

“I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.” James Nachtwey, photojournalist – quote from his website.

Refugees plead with police officers to let members of their families board the train in Tovarnik, Croatia, Sept. 17, 2015. By James Nachtwey for TIME

The use of photography in newspapers can lead to acts of censorship by newspapers or governments, the twisting or holding back some of the truth. Because photography is so trusted as a source of truth photography can be used as a means of spreading propaganda.

Social use of photography.

Photography was a very expensive and complex technology and therefore was only used by people to record special occasions or great ceremonies, where there are large gatherings of family or friends such as weddings, parties, festivals or anniversaries.   The ceremonies were photographed because they lie outside the everyday routine so photographs become part of the ritual, to record the group of people and the occasion, but what was not recorded was the day to day routine.

Photography has become democratised, the drop in real terms the cost of photography, equipment and the rise in quality and relative the ease to produce a photograph compared to the early days of photography. Taking pictures was regarded by some as an expensive frivolous luxury. The massive up take and use of inexpensive digital cameras, and now camera technology is combined in many other technologies has made photography a common activity. Mobile phone manufacturers have put more cameras into the hands of more people than ever before; the photograph is a social document and historical document that persists but in changing ways, not printed and placed in family albums; photographs circulate globally on an unprecedented scale via electronic image banks and the social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook, Flickr) to store and share photographs (Google Drive, OneDrive). Some photographs will be lost and fade away, but the changing way that photographs are being taken, the ease that photographs can be taken, viewed, stored means there is an overwhelming volume of images that create a social and historical record of events, people – family, friends or celebrities, landscapes, buildings, fashions.

One of the consequences of large numbers of people recording events on their mobile phones is that they become observers or spectators and stop being part of the event. In an interview in the Guardian photographer Jillian Edelstein commented: “In a news broadcast this week, I watched a woman in the middle of a street in Soweto pan her iPad across the crowd. I didn’t see a connection with the event, I saw her simply recording it. That’s the difference. It’s image taking rather than image making” Guardian 11-December-2013

The increased manipulation of photographic and the ease that images can be altered may suit some individual’s need to remodel the image.   The ability to manipulate may also lessen “the record of the truth”, but the numbers of the networked, distributed nature of digital photographs retains the truth, the majority of photographs will remain unchanged compared to the small percentage that have be re-worked.

Photography is heavily used in the tourist industry as a method of showing beautiful and desirable destinations. What can be done is careful framing or cropping of a photograph of a beautiful landmark, what is missed out is the stinking rubbish dump or building site immediately out of shot.

Members of the audience hold up their cellphones Jim Dyson/Redferns via Getty Images


From the wide scale adoption of photography as a means of generating a record of the truth that is trusted by governments for example the identification in documents for photo ID passports, driving license.

Photography is used in legal cases as for documenting evidence that can be submitted as evidence or proof of existence. Police forensics. Photographic records are an essential resource used in medicine and dentistry for records, therefore photography must be considered as a record of the truth.

The ease that a photograph can be “Photoshoped” needs to be considered when looking at a photograph, consider the authenticity and provenance of the image. Who when and why was the image created.

What is important is that for a true record captured on a photograph, it is a truth that requires safeguards so technologies of recording, preservation and retrieval of a photograph can be authenticated as a true, unedited or reworked image. Photographs that have global positioning tagged to the document help eliminate falsification of photographs of places.


Some of the resources used:



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