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Teju Cole:

An essay I haven’t written, and it may not need to be an essay, just a brief note like this one, is about the common phenomenon of reading an expression on someone’s face in a photograph as proof of something or the other. Indeed, what’s in the heart or on the mind might be revealed on the face. It frequently is. But much more likely is that the face, caught at a certain moment, is simply cycling through its wide repertoire of possible configurations. We can look bored without being bored, sarcastic without feeling sarcasm, sad even though it’s a happy moment, engaged while feeling neutral.

All unfaked photos are true. The question that is never properly interrogated is: true of what? An unmanipulated photo of a face is true of what that face was doing right at that moment as seen with a certain arrangement of light. This could be radically different from that it was doing the moment before or the moment after the one the camera captured. The camera has not lied, it has merely told a severely delimited truth that we are eager to take for a larger one. But the reason why we do so is obvious: it amuses us, it confirms our prejudices, it gives us a hook to like even more someone we already like, or despise more deeply someone we hated anyway.

Image: Duchenne de Boulogne, from Le Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine, 1862

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