Degrees of authenticity

A family portrait. Everyone in their best clothes. Everyone stood tall, sitting upright. Everyone staring into the camera, not smiling, not frowning. It is a photo which is reminiscent of a Victorian portrait; an accurate depiction of a family that is doing well in life. Or is it?

A couple of weeks ago my colleagues and I has a discussion about authenticity. We were all asked to bring an example, from any media, of something which is authentic to a development meeting. I chose to show the above picture.

This photo was one of a set that was used in the Time & Place project. The collection, curated by Tim and Elizabeth Smith (my uncle and aunt), “captures the output of Bradford’s Belle Vue Studio, a place where South Asian migrants had their pictures taken for decades. The project aims to find out what happened to the people featured in the photographs.” The photographs and other aspects of the project are exhibited online.

Belle Vue Studio was a photography studio, found in the center of Bradford, where South Asian migrants would have portraits taken, often to send home to loved ones to reassure them that they were doing fine. These unique photos tell the story of the South Asian community in Bradford, from the earliest communities to the present day.

At first glance there seems to be little authenticity in the photos. There is money indiscreetly tucked into top pockets, new clothes are almost always worn and luxury objects, such as transistor radios, often appear in the photograph (likely hired from the studio or brought along specially). The message is loud and clear, “Look at how well we look, and what we can afford. We’re doing OK.”

When examined superficially, these photographs seem like a lie. People wore their best clothes especially for the occasion and ‘props’ give an illusion of wealth. Surely this is not authentic? However, at the same time as concealing the realities of their day-to-day lives, these photos are authentic. A large proportion of the South Asian migrants in the Bradford area went to get these pictures taken; the existence of these pictures gives insight into an authentic part of migrant culture in the local area. They also show the truth about the family at their best; this is really what they look like for a part of their lives.

At the moment, I am working in factual television production where authenticity and truth lie at the heart of the programmes I work on. Can I learn any lessons from this photograph and apply it to my role?

Exploring how authentic the Belle Vue photographs are made me think about how the context of the people and content that appears in factual documentaries. Essentially the content in this photograph is (partly) true to reality but it only shows one side of the story.

Recently, WYNC’s Radiolab produced a podcast called ‘The Fact of the Matter’, which, among other topics, explored the mystery of Yellow Rain – a possible chemical weapon used in Laos. It included an interview with a Hmong veteran, interpreted by his niece, who described his personal experiences with Yellow Rain. It did not go well for RadioLab; one of the presenters in trying to press to get the ‘truth’ came across harsh and followed what some argued as an unnecessarily harsh line of questioning. Since broadcast, Radiolab has been accused of racism including in a long essay written by the niece of the veteran. In it she says “I am struck by how many times a podcast on truth can (be) doctored, to protect itself.” Radiolab subsequently came out with a statement to refute the claims made in the essay.

The whole situation raises interesting questions, not only about how context and inclusion/exclusion of authentic content can affect whether something is true, but also how we should treat contributors and their stories. Like the photograph, or the Radiolab documentary, we have to think carefully about what is the truth we are after, and about how context of authentic content can skew meaning.

Photo credit: Bradford Museums (For full size, please click on image)

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