The photo without a fact

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By EUGENIO BUCCI*

The masses addicted to the pleasure of looking do not think, they do not like to think, they just adore their digital golden calves and idolize their tyrants

The credibility of photography entered a kind of material fatigue. It is no longer possible not to doubt the authority of that realistic image that opened up before our eyes as if it were definitive proof of an event. A photo is often a hoax.

In times past, when cameras still used film to record an instant, the negative was revered as if it were the truth in person. It was believed that on that small roll of cellulose triacetate were printed genuine fragments of history, a document as reliable as a shard of pottery from extinct civilizations, an authentic manuscript of a celebrated writer, a dinosaur tooth. Today, the conversation has changed. There is clear evidence that photographs lie.

Today, the chemical processes that “developed” the film in a ritual of alchemy under red light have given way to computer files that, in a second, offer visions of pure scopic epiphany: a woman's face with hungover eyes, the wreckage of a bombed hospital in Gaza, a distant galaxy that resembles a float in Marquês de Sapucaí. They are sweeping insights, but they are often nonsense. Pope Francis, somewhat dapper, parades around in a white raincoat typical of a billionaire strolling in the Alps: fake. Donald Trump in handcuffs, with an angry face: fake.

Videos also learned to lie. Unabashedly. Last week, OpenAI, a company dedicated to synthesizing, promoting and disseminating Artificial Intelligence tools, announced its new toy, called Sora. From text commands (such as prompts), the machine creates accurate, strong, convincing films, in very high resolution – and fake ones. Sora's visual productions do not reflect any reality. In fact, they don't even promise to reflect – they are just pieces of fiction that can be created without the help of human beings.

Someone will say, then, that we live in a paradox: never before in the history of this country, and of all others, have so many images circulated through so many simultaneous media to appease the avidity of so many audiences at once; At the same time, the reliability of the invention popularized by Louis Daguerre and his silver plate daguerreotype has never been so in doubt. The nudes and reels fill the air with consumerist euphoria, but the explosion of photographic forgeries should make us think. Our problem is that few people take the risk of thinking.

Régis Debray once wrote that we are the first civilization allowed to believe its eyes. It turns out that the hope of this civilization depends on its ability to doubt electronic screens. Yes, it is paradoxical. The comfort of blindly believing in one's own eyes is equivalent to a death sentence for civilization. The political tragedy of our time has to do with this: masses addicted to the pleasure of looking do not think, they do not like to think, they just adore their digital golden calves and idolize their tyrants, ridiculous tyrants.

The most interesting thing of all is that, back when we took portraits as the legitimate expression of objective truth (the lens, after all, was always called “objective”), things weren't quite like that. A photo was not just the decal of the real. Above that, it was an opinion about the real, at best.

The camera – which is now embedded in the tiny chips of any cheap cell phone – descends from an optical device that helped 17th century painters to be more believable in their strokes. It was the “darkroom”, a tool serving a point of view. The “dark chamber” was shaped like a large box, in which light only entered through a small hole. The thin sliver of light projected the scene taking place outside on the opposite wall. Alone inside the box, the artist scratched what he saw projected and, in this way, accurately reproduced the lines of nature.

Over time, this box underwent various adaptations, decreased in size and incorporated lenses. When photography was finally invented, the painter was replaced by an artificial mechanism made of photosensitive materials. After that, the digital revolution replaced chemical film with chips. Then, in the 21st century, artificial intelligence replaced the photographer with prompts and removed the external scene, dispensed with the facts.

Even so, the seductive power of photography remains intact. Who cares about the facts? We are the civilization of falsifying the image that interpreted the facts. A million photos are worth more than a word of honor. And how it sells. And how it works.

Plato said that thought is only thought when it can go beyond the senses, like vision or hearing. According to him, no one would reach the truth through the eyes, but through reason. This consisted of the necessary passage of the doxa (a mere personal impression) for the episteme (the knowledge). The old philosopher was not right in everything he wrote, but on this point he deserves to be remembered – even if in vain.

* Eugene Bucci He is a professor at the School of Communications and Arts at USP. Author, among other books, of Uncertainty, an essay: how we think about the idea that disorients us (and orients the digital world) (authentic). [https://amzn.to/3SytDKl]

Originally published in the newspaper The State of S. Paul.


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