Believing Is Seeing by Errol Morris

Believing Is Seeing: (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) by Errol Morris, a filmmaker, unravels the mysteries of documentary photography.  Why is Morris so skeptical about documentary photographs?  Does it relate to his deceased father and the secrecy around his role in the family or to his eye surgery as a child?  Beyond that, Morris seeks out factual evidence through testimony, history, and careful examination of light and contrast to determine the authenticity of photos and the stories behind them.

While some of the discussion and technical analysis of the Fenton photographs of the Crimean War can be a bit much for some readers, the conclusions drawn from these discussions are captivating.  Did Fenton stage the photo with the cannon balls on the road or did he not and which photo did he take first — The one with the cannon balls on the road or in the ditch?  When I first looked at the photographs, the one with the cannon balls on the road appeared to be a more powerful image, but then it appears to be staged because the balls are too evenly randomized.

“To use the familiar gestalt image of the duck-rabbit:  if we believe we see a rabbit, we see a rabbit.  If we believe we see a duck, we see a duck.  But the situation is even worse than the Gestalt psychologists imagined.  Our beliefs can completely defeat sensory evidence.”  (page 83-4)

Photographers often frame images in a way that captures the best of a scene, that’s the most aesthetically pleasing, and that provides the best lighting.  Moreover, photographers will take more than one picture of the same scene, if possible, and choose the best image to submit to magazines, etc.  They are framing the image we see regardless of whether readers realize it or not, but readers also are framing the scene and history.  Morris aptly titles this examination of photography “Believing Is Seeing” because each viewer’s beliefs, prejudices, etc., often frame their perspective when looking at a photograph.

Morris’ book is tutorial, historical, and poignant in how it examines photography, conjecture about photography and news articles, and human reactions to images.  My analytical brain was working overtime with this analysis, particularly when I got to the Abu Ghraib’s The Hooded Man.  One thing Morris clearly demonstrates is that each photo has a history or a context behind it, and without conducting appropriate research and background verifications, viewers and readers can draw the wrong conclusions.  In the discussion of The Hooded Man photo and the false identification of Ali Shalal Qaissi (called The Claw) as that man, two photos from two different perspectives are discussed, one taken by Sergeant Ivan Frederick without the flash that became iconic and one taken with a flash by Sabrina Harman.  While Qaissi is not the man in the iconic photo, Abdou Hussain Saad Falah (called Gilligan) is said to be that man, but in his testimony to the Taguba Commission he mentions a flash when his captors took his photo with the hood and blanket on.  So, is this telling us that he only remembers the flash and that maybe something happened between Frederick’s photo session and that of Harman’s, or is the flash more memorable because he was wearing a hood?

Believing Is Seeing: (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) by Errol Morris is captivating from page one, and it will have readers, photographers, and more reassess their view of photography and history.  It raises questions about whether appropriate research was conducted, evidence collected, and correct facts appropriately used.  Like any good journalist or photographer, documents should include the facts of the moment, the event, and the context, and Morris’ book demonstrates that while many blame the 24-7 world in which we live for the slipshod journalism completed today, it has happened throughout the ages and may have less to do with technology and more to do with human nature and our desire to frame the story.  Photography is not the mystery here, it is the human mind and human behavior that is the mystery.  How are things cropped, framed, and modified to suit our purposes and why?  How can we as readers know that images and stories are modified to suit a specific purpose?  Morris suggests research, analysis, and skepticism, but also a curious mind bent on uncovering the truth.

About the Author:

Errol Morris is a world-renowned filmmaker—the Academy Award-winning director of The Fog of War and the recipient of a MacArthur genius award. His other films include Mr. Death, Fast Cheap & Out of Control, A Brief History of Time, and The Thin Blue Line.

Find out more about Errol Morris at his website, and follow him on Twitter.  Also there is this interesting interview from California Magazine.


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This is my 51st book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.


  1. Very interesting. I saw a documentary once that showed how often war photographs are staged and that as soon as we see a picture we believe we’ve really seen absolute truth.

    • Yes, for whatever reason, we often believe images more readily than someone else’s account of events — probably because we fear those written accounts are full of the writer’s own biases.

  2. This is such a fascinating topic! Photos can really lead us to believe things that aren’t necessarily true. It sounds like Morris makes great points, particularly about research, analysis, and skepticism!

    • I agree there are some great points in this book, and I hope that more people read it. I’ve often thought that journalism needs a better set of checks and balances, just like photography does.

  3. Photos can be very misleading and yet we often forget to find out the context before we make judgments based on those photos. I’m excited to see this explored in book format and I can’t wait to check out the images the author chose to focus on.

    Thanks for a great review Serena!

  4. When I took my photography class, we studied (briefly) different types of photography and documentary style was much more interesting than I thought it would be.

    • As an amateur photographer, it was interesting to see how motivations of the photographer come into play during an analysis of older photographs when really the context of the moment should also be a priority.

  5. This sounds very interesting. Great review!

  6. This sounds interesting! With photoshop these days, we have even more reason to be skeptical. I bet my mother would love this book.

    • This book really would have book clubs discussing and theorizing. I think everyone who reads this would have their brains on fire with questions and speculations.