As discussed in class on Tuesday, visual historical sources are not exempt from the biases that are present in, say, written historical documents. Photographs and video are not inherently ideologically neutral—they can be framed and staged. Clearly the German film found and shown in Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished was captured for a very particular purpose. Likewise, horrific footage of Nazi camps is also framed in the Allied video clip Death Mills. Still, historians cannot completely disregard the fact that visual evidence is indicative of something, whether or not it is what the photographer or editor intended.
Today, there are editing programs such as Photoshop. If presented the opportunity, Hitler certainly might have claimed that photographic proof of his crimes was edited. In fact, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad did just that in early February of this year. “The lawyers who have [accused] your government of human rights abuses have collected . . . over 50,000 photographs taken by one of your former government photographers showing emaciated, tortured bodies in your prisons,” a journalist informs the Syrian president. Obviously, the journalist’s language is loaded, and it seem unlikely that one photographer took all 50,000 photographs. Assad replies, “Who verified the pictures? Who verified that they’re not edited in Photoshop and so on? It’s not about the photo . . . You cannot mention such a picture without verifying who are those and where and everything about it. Just to put it in front of the audience, tell them, oh, they’ve been killed by the Syrians . . . we have to talk about concrete evidence . . . It’s just propaganda, it’s just fake news”. Contrary to Assad, I think it is very much about the photo. Facts about visual sources do need to be verified, and ultimately the FBI did determine that at least 242 of the photographs are of “real people and events” and “exhibit no artifacts or inconsistencies that would indicate they have been manipulated”. Then, while real, concrete visual evidence obviously exists, perhaps Assad is getting at the fact that unbiased visual evidence rarely or never exists.