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How pictures can lie

On 9 August 1997, The Mirror printed an edited photo of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Fayed on its front page. The edited photo shows Diana and Fayed facing each other and about to kiss, although the unedited photo reveals that at that point Fayed was facing an entirely different direction. Did The Mirror lie to its readers?

There is a broad understanding of lie on which the answer must be yes. On this understanding, most insincere acts can count as a lie. For example, I would count as lying if I were to stand by the window, pack my bags and leave the house in order to give my neighbours the (mistaken) impression that I am going on a journey. If the act of packing my bags can count as a lie, then surely the same must be possible for the act of printing and distributing an edited picture.

However, on many occasions we use lie in a narrower sense that allows for a finer differentiation among insincere acts. On this narrow sense, I would be lying by telling my neighbours that I am going on a journey (without an intention of doing so), but I would not be lying by packing my bags. The act of packing my bags would be misleading, but it would not be a lie.

So, given a narrow sense of lie, did The Mirror lie to its readers? Here the answer may be less clear. If we trust the philosophical mainstream it should be no. Prominent philosophical accounts of the nature of lying require liars to say something they believe to be false. If saying requires the use of words and sentences, as seems plausible, then printing and distributing a picture can be insincere and misleading, but it cannot count as lying.

But is it really plausible to deny that The Mirror lied to its readers? In my view, a good case can be made to count the edited photo as a lie even on a narrow understanding of what it is to lie. For one thing, the act of printing and distributing the edited photo bears an important hallmark of lying: a lack of deniability. As an illustration of this hallmark, consider a case in which Anne asks Bert whether he’s going to the party on Saturday. Bert has to work late on Saturday, but is nonetheless planning on going after his shift has finished. However, he does not want Anne to know about his plans. Now, Bert could lie to Anne by saying “I’m not going,” or he could try to mislead her (without lying) by saying “I have to work late.” If he goes for the second option, he retains deniability. If Anne finds out that he was insincere and accuses him of lying, Bert can respond: “I never claimed that I wasn’t not going to the party. I merely claimed that I had to work.” Such a denial may be pedantic, but it does seem to be true.

Let us return to the edited photo of Diana and Fayed. Did The Mirror retain deniability? Arguably it did not. By printing and distributing the edited photo, the newspaper claimed that Diana and Fayed were facing each other and about to kiss at the time the photo was taken. It would have been clearly false if the newspaper had denied such a claim in response to an accusation of lying.

A second reason to count the edited picture as a lie is that the distinction between lying and misleading naturally extends to communicative acts involving photos. Given the right circumstances, it is possible to mislead someone by presenting an unedited, accurate photo. For example, one could use an unedited photo of two people facing each other to create the misleading impression that they were talking to each other when the photo was taken. Such a use of a photo would be misleading, but arguably not a lie (still: on a narrow sense of lie). Moreover, it would present a clear contrast to the edited photo of Diana and Fayed. This leads to the following overall view: just as some linguistic utterances are lies and others are misleading, some communicative acts involving photos are lies and other such communicative acts are misleading. In this view, the edited photo of Diana and Fayed seems to belong into the category of photos that are lies.

If these two considerations are on the right track, The Mirror did lie to its readers, even on a narrow understanding of lie. This speaks against philosophical accounts of lying that require liars to say something they believe to be false. And it raises the following questions: What is it that makes a lie a lie? What do linguistic and pictorial lies have in common? And how does lying differ from misleading?

The notion of commitment can play a role in answering all three of these questions. Lying is a communicative act through which one (intentionally) commits oneself to something one believes to be false. This explains why lying is not tied to linguistic utterances: clearly, communicative agents can use photos to commit themselves to something they believe to be false. And it explains how lying differs from misleading: in contrast to lying, misleading is a non-committal communicative act – which is why misleaders retain deniability, and liars do not.

If all this is right, we can indeed learn something from the edited photo printed by The Mirror. Not about Diana and Fayed, but about the nature of lying.

Featured image: Photos, photography by brisch27. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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