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Filmmaker Errol Morris Says ‘Believing Is Seeing’

Errol Morris at the WBUR studios. (photo: Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Errol Morris at the WBUR studios. (photo: Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This picture of Ali Shalal Qaissi became symbolic of the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, Iraq. (Courtesy Penguin Press)

This picture of Ali Shalal Qaissi became symbolic of the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, Iraq. (Courtesy Penguin Press)

In 2006, several media organization mistook the wrong Abu Ghraib prisoner as the subject of the iconic “hooded man” photograph — including the New York Times, which ran a front-page photo of the man, Ali Shalal Qaissi. Famed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris knew the real identity of the photo’s subject – he was working at the time on his documentary about Abu Ghraib “Standard Operating Procedure” – and so he wasn’t surprised when the retractions started coming. But it wasn’t just a simple case of mistaken identity. Part of the problem was inherent to the evidence itself – the photographs. Here’s Morris:

It is easy to confuse photographs with reality. To many of us, photographs are reality. But however real they may seem, they are not reality. Reality is three-dimensional. Photographs are but two-dimensional, and record only a moment, a short interval of time snatched from the long continuum of before and after. Photographs offer “the ocular proof” demanded by Othello – but judging from Othello’s subsequent behavior, that standard of proof did not serve him well in the end.

What we believe informs what we see, not the other way around, says Morris.

Morris has been plumbing the depths of truth and reality in his documentaries “Fog of War” and “The Thin Blue Line.” Now he’s taken that investigation to the realm of photography — and from the Crimean War to the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon — in his new book “Believing Is Seeing (Observations On The Mysteries Of Photography).”

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