Exercise 3.1 – Unmasking Photo Opportunities, Cubistically

Read Fred Ritchin’s essay ‘Toward a Hyperphotography’ in Ritchin, F. (2008) After Photography, New York: W.W. Norton.

Look at the websites Ritchin discusses. Can you find any visual examples of ‘cubistically unmasking photo opportunities’? Look for multiple points of view around a single news event or story. Make some notes in your learning log.

Fred Ritchin defines the concept of Cubistically unmasking as the principle of the contradictory double image; reality has no single truth; the viewer must be allowed to see things from all sides.

By attaching information to an image, we are not necessarily contradicting the first image but we are providing the viewer additional information to allow him / her to form a more valued judgement. The contradictory double image is cubist which is starting to suggest that reality has no single truth.

Ritchin’s proposal to use the hypertext language to insert more information into an image through layering the image and linking to more information of further images from the series would then provide an overall multi perspective strategy would help devalue political and social spin.

Certainly, Ritchin’s proposal would help to correct some of the damage being done to the relative truth of images through the deluge of information on social media. All it takes is one person with enough followers to repeat an untruth about an image or video for it to become real in their minds; this then results in a burst out anger and outrage which drowns the reality and distorts the truth as people no longer trust what they are being presented with.

Some examples of Cubistically unmasking used by Ritchin are:

  • OJ Simpson photo in Time Magazine where his skin is shown to be darker than he really is, as opposed to the same picture in Newsweek where the image is unaltered. This caused Time Magazine to be accused of racism. The editor defined the changes to the image as art.
  • Two identical pictures of Lance Corporal Boudreaux holding text, the text being totally contradictory. The US Army have yet to come to a conclusion on what was the real image, even after a 1-year investigation into the matter.
  • A picture of George Bush holding the Christmas turkey for the troops linked with a picture of the actual turkey which they ate.

One of Ritchin’s examples is the deployment of American troops from a helicopter during the American invasion of Haiti in 1994. One shows the helicopter low to the ground, either in the stage of hovering or in take off after the troops have deployed. The troops are mainly in the foreground of the image, their guns pointing outwards to cover any threat to their immediate area. The other side of this image shows that the troops, who are using their equipment packs as defensive mounts are in fact pointing their guns are a group of photographers and that there is no immediate group threatening the landing zone.

A black hawk helicopter hovers in the midground. The foreground has American troops laying on their fronts, behind their packs. The guns point outwards towards a perceived threat.
American Troops face outward in a defensive position.
Same photograph differing position. We are at the side of the troops as they point their weapons off to the right of the screen.
We can see no threat, to the right of the troops position is a group of photographers. In the background we can see neatly parked cars, SUVs and mobile homes.
Same photograph, but from a different position.

These images when presented to the American public caused a bit of anger as there was a third unvoiced interpenetration, that of the Marines within the image.

Comment by US troop, stating that the position troops took was a trained position for exiting a helicopter. He states that troops never pointed weapons at anyone, and what is presented is false information.
Screenshot of comment left by trooper.

Undoubtedly, it can be seen that the troops deployed in a defensive position, but we have to ask, was it necessary? In the background things look very peaceful and orderly, a number of mobile homes sit parked, they are clean, modern and well looked after. There are no groups other than the photographers seen in the frames.

Of course, there are other images which can be seen to be cubistically unmasking the issues of the invasion.

American troops unload boxes of "US Aid" from the rear of a Chinook helicopter.
Unloading aid packages from a helicopter

The image of the American troops bringing aid and support to Haiti clashes with the second image.

American troops on patrol, walking down a street in Haiti. In the background armoured hummvies sit with troops on top pointing large caliber guns over the heads of red cross workers.

The troops in the foreground on patrol are passing the body of a man who lies in the street.
American Troops on patrol pass a dead body in the street,

What is presented here in the second image is a confusing frame filled with the possibility for interpretation. How was the man killed? Were the troops involved? Why are the red cross not helping? All these question fill the mind of the viewer.What is presented here in the second image is a confusing frame filled with the possibility for interpretation. How was the man killed? Were the troops involved? Why are the red cross not helping? All these question fill the mind of the viewer.

Another image shown in the people looking over the devastation after bombing in Lebanon, which was awarded the World Press Photo award in 2006 to Spencer Platt. The image however attributes the people in the car as young rich Lebanese people coming to see the damage and slumming it in the bombed out neighborhood.

4 women and one man sit in a parked car, the look out of the car at the devistation from bombing around them.
Spencer Platts award winning photograph.

Demonstrated that the lack of involvement by the photographer to gather basic information to back up their theory again caused a backlash after the people photographed were interviewed and told their story.

Of course, today the matter is slightly different, Ritchin was right to point out the inhumanity of the digital photograph and that disaster tourists exist.

People evacuate wounded after of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. A man carries a young women towards help.
People evacuate wounded after of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. Massive explosions rocked downtown Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the port, damaging buildings and blowing out windows and doors as a giant mushroom cloud rose above the capital. Witnesses saw many people injured by flying glass and debris. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Compare this image from the 2020 Beirut explosion, in the immediate after math people rush to help each other. A few months on and the situation has changed, people really are using human suffering as a backdrop for their own personal satisfaction, using the damaged port and buildings as background for their Instagram images.

A young woman, stands with her back to the ruined port buildings. The act as a background for someone taking a picture of her as she poses, in short top, shorts and high heels. She holds her hair in a fashion model position.
Disaster tourism and selfies.
The same young woman checks the image taken as people walk past. Her clothing contracts with the headscarf, long sleeved tops and long trousers that the other women wear.
Examining the shot.

One of the main issues highlighted certainly by Ritchin is the lack of information gathering which is done at the time of image capture. Of course, at times there can be no balancing image; in the case of the situation room during the killing of Osama Bin Laden, there were no real images of his dead body. Certainly, stating that an image had it been produced would either have caused him to be raised to the status of a martyr or people would just generally not believe the image was real. In this case the US government was caught between a rock and a hard place, any form of image would have resulted in a certain amount of bad publicity and feeling towards the US. Here there is no other balance than that of historical reporting and fact finding. Certainly, the only images I have encountered have been fakes.

It has always been heard that we should not take a single story as covering the all the facts and presenting them as the truth. Back in the 1980s, the Guardian newspaper used an advert to demonstrate just that.

This advert demonstrated the contradictory nature of images and makes the viewer think – What is right, what is the whole story?

Certainly, it is something I shall always keep in mind when viewing images, there have been times when I as a viewer have unthinkingly assumed things just from what was presented. I shall try to ensure that I do not repeat this mistake when I take images which could have more than one side to its nature.

I will also look into the suggestions made by Ritchin to see if I can incorporate links, pop outs and extra information from hotspots in the images that I post.


Broad, T. (2014). Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986) – Jeff Wall | The Broad. [online] http://www.thebroad.org. Available at: https://www.thebroad.org/art/jeff-wall/dead-troops-talk-vision-after-ambush-red-army-patrol-near-moqor-afghanistan-winter [Accessed 4 Nov. 2020].

dot Com, S. (2004). A picture is no longer worth a thousand words. [online] Salon. Available at: https://www.salon.com/2004/04/22/doctored_photos/ [Accessed 4 Nov. 2020].

Gentile, B. (2015). Haiti invasion, 1994. [online] Bill Gentile. Available at: https://billgentile.com/portfolio/haiti-invasion-1994/ [Accessed 4 Nov. 2020].

Guardian, T. (n.d.). The Guardian’s 1986 “Points of view” advert – YouTube. [online] http://www.youtube.com. Available at: https://youtu.be/_SsccRkLLzU [Accessed 4 Nov. 2020].

Law, T. (2020). Explosion in Beirut: Photos From a City Still Reeling From the Blast. [online] Time. Available at: https://time.com/5875675/photos-lebanon-aftermath-explosion-beirut/ [Accessed 4 Nov. 2020].

Observer, D. (2009). Exposure Time: Design Observer. [online] designobserver.com. Available at: https://designobserver.com/feature/exposure-time/11447 [Accessed 4 Nov. 2020].

Ramadan, T. (2020). Beirut port explosion ‘disaster selfies’ on Instagram spark controversy. [online] Al Arabiya English. Available at: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2020/09/02/Beirut-port-explosion-disaster-selfies-on-Instagram-spark-controversy [Accessed 4 Nov. 2020].

Recknagel, C. (2011). Bin Laden Conspiracy Theories Flourish Amid Demands For Proof. [online] RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Available at: https://www.rferl.org/a/bin_laden_dead_but_conspiracy_theories_flourish/24091318.html [Accessed 4 Nov. 2020].

Rogers, I. (2012). Jeff Wall – Dead Troops Talk. [online] GREYNOTGREY. Available at: http://greynotgrey.com/blog/2012/05/15/jeff-wall-dead-troops-talk/.

Sheehy, K. (2020). Ghoulish gals are taking sexy snaps in front of Beirut explosion carnage. [online] New York Post. Available at: https://nypost.com/2020/08/10/woman-take-sexy-photos-using-beirut-explosion-carnage-as-backdrop/ [Accessed 4 Nov. 2020].

Snopes (n.d.). Osama bin Laden Death Photos. [online] Snopes.com. Available at: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/osama-death-photos/ [Accessed 4 Nov. 2020].

One thought on “Exercise 3.1 – Unmasking Photo Opportunities, Cubistically

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: