This photographic essay explores the parallels between documentary photography and Conspiracy Theories. It observes that both attempt to present the truth, to remove ambiguity and uncertainty, yet both are founded on the false assumption of the inherent veracity of their medium.
By asking the question what can we trust, we are left to consider that scepticism might be the only rational option.
This photographic essay extrapolates from the theory “Birds Aren’t Real” to explore the broader question of Conspiracy Theories, using the practice of photography as a metaphor to highlight the difficulty in determining what is or is not true. The “Birds Aren’t Real” theory promotes the hypothesis that all birds in the United States died out in the 1990s and were replaced with government spy-drones.
The term “Birds Aren’t Real” refers to biological “Birds” no longer existing on United States soil. After the government forcibly made the entire species extinct in the 20th century, all of these real birds were replaced with surveillance drones designed to look just like Birds. To simplify- Birds no longer exist in the U.S. as a biological lifeform, thus, Birds Aren’t Real!
Because a photograph captures exactly what is in front of the lens, [usually] without human interpretation, we assume it does not lie. This gives us confidence that the resulting image is true-to-life; it correctly represents the scene in front of it. Yet, there are several decisions the photographer makes in taking, and subsequently processing and presenting a picture, that undercut this otherwise intuitive conclusion.
First, relates to the authenticity of the subject itself; it may have been staged, for example. In this essay, a bird feeder was used to attract birds to a place and position easier to photograph. While this may seem trivial, it places the subject in an unnatural situation, which some might argue subverts the veracity of the shot.
Second, a photograph only captures what is directly in front of the lens, ignoring what is beyond the radius of its view and depth of field. The shots I took focused directly on the birds, ignoring everything else around them, with a shallow depth of field that blurs the background. These two constraints have a simplifying effect by removing details, and thus has the viewer focus on the subject itself.
A picture captures just an instant in time, nothing before or after. For example, I selected images where the birds were looking directly at me, and I ignored those capturing the second before and after when they were looking elsewhere. As a frozen instant in time, I was able to study each picture, and see things that I missed in the moment, either through distraction or the visual “stream” that went by so quickly it didn’t register. But with the instant frozen in the photograph I could see what was “hidden” from the moment. This essay only came about after reviewing hundreds of pictures and seeing that I had a few where the birds were staring directly at me. This “fact” went unnoticed in real time, it was hidden from me while I was shooting.
Needless to say, with digital equipment, we often take many pictures of the same thing, yet we might just pick one to show; the one in focus, without blinking eyes, and when the bird is looking at the camera, with the hundreds of others being ignored.
Each of the decisions noted above, and many others, serve to deliver and shape some impression of an event, or more broadly to infer some meaning: the birds are watching us and, as real birds are unlikely to have any real interest in us, they really must be spy-drones. This answer — they are spy-drones — resolves the question of why are they looking at me. It removes uncertainty. As these events are captured with a photograph, and as we trust that medium to capture reality, the inferred authenticity allows us to use them as evidence in support of the theory. The collection of bird photos I chose develops the narrative.
Similarly, Conspiracy Theories are a constructed narrative, often based on information of questionable veracity and/or from a questionable source. Yet, the believers intuitively accept the the theories as true, just as we all often fail to question the truth of a photograph. Through their narrative, Conspiracy Theories attempt to resolve ambiguity and uncertainty, in part by simplifying complex issues. The narrative gives information to the believer, meaning and explanations, that are otherwise unavailable — hidden — from the general public, instilling a sense of power and control. Allowing these believers to build confidence and control by overcoming uncertainty.
By choosing only photographs where the birds were looking directly at the camera I presented evidence that the “birds” are watching me, and thus they must be government spy-drones. There is no other explanation possible.