All the World is Staged

by nathandowningsolent

A notion all too frequent regarding photography as a medium, is the automatic assumption of truthful transparency within an image, assuming that what is seen through the viewfinder is an indisputable truth. Makers, such as the photographically world-renowned Henri Cartier-Bresson, have previously been intent on capturing a moment ‘true to reality’. Attempting with all their might, to demonstrate a pellucid depiction of reality-driven occurrences, often surreal or unconventional in content. Abiding by an environment outside of their control, to align and assemble their images, whilst observing from behind the viewfinder. As if a solar eclipse, the points of focus align in a rare and short-lived phenomenon, revealing itself for a minimal amount of time before disappearing, never to return in exact replication.

I imagine that the thrill of discovering such moments, never to be experienced by anyone else, is a huge part of the satisfaction gained from such a temporally present photographic process.  Being able to capture moments, so accurately constructed, seems to be a flaunted by many earlier photographers. But, although such images, aimed at capturing the ‘decisive moment’, defined by the philosophically self-congratulating Henri Cartier-Bresson, may seem to reveal a reality-driven perspective true to the mirroring of our real world experiences. Does this necessarily mean however, that the image is truthful to reality?

The Var department, Hyères,1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson

The Var department, Hyères,1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson

Similar to that of a controlled science experiment, we need to take in to account the huge amount of uncontrollable variables that influence a seemingly truthful documentation. The deceiving bite of an unblemished reality, seems to have enticed many before, boasting of such talented sensibility, awareness and discovery. But I find the notion is ill-conceived and realise that the obvious theoretical anti-venom is inevitably the diverse range of human artistic individuality seen in any society, modern or historical society. The subconscious analysing of your environment, within your psychological and photographic confinements, means that a replication of reality is never achievable through photo documentation.

Amidst a long list of outside influences, consciously and subconsciously effecting our ability to document reality, an individuals control of the camera seems to be the most apparent. If ten cameras where handed to ten people, and were then each asked to photograph exactly the same street scene. On return, each image would read differently based on the artist’s own interpretation of the setting, conscious or not. So immediately before a photo has even been taken, the grasping and replication of reality is flawed, there are a huge number of variables that would differ the photograph as an art, to that of the real world, each photo would be interpreted differently.

Camera position is another one of the many truth-smearing irregularities seen in what one might regard as an image of truth. It is just a small sample of how reality differs from documentation, whether intended on or not. For example, take an image of a confident man, very happy with himself and the way his life was going, if it was created with a higher camera position, it could cloud the truthful characteristics of happiness, allowing the subject to appear smaller, inducing the notion of fear and insignificance. This is not a true representation of the subject, only a conscious or unconscious sabotage of reality lead by the artist’s creative.

Another honourable mention regarding the outside influences apparent when photographing any subject is the socio-economic climate. Politics, or your place in society, can also morph the way we compose a photograph, whether politically-driven anecdotes or the recontextualisation of a certain expressive individual, they are all effected by the social environment you are exposed to. For example an image taken by Andreas Gursky, utilising a deadpan perspective that allows the viewer to arrive at their own interpretation, may completely change in analytical direction if taken by Magnum photographer, Robert Capa, more politically motivated.

All of these are examples of a small number of factors that can effect the making of an image. But what if the time and effort needed for such accurate, agile and philosophically sharp imagery could be replicated through what we might refer to as performance. A creatively reinforced staging of content and subjective direction captured through the lens as either deliberately staged, drawing emphasis on the fact it is a staged photo making no effort to cover it up. Questionably staged, where in the image is shown as reality, relatable to the viewer as something that we could experience, but we are left to decide. Or as a hidden staging, where by the maker has arranged or intervened with the content but intended on showing what was reality, a notion particularly disloyal and controversial towards the traditional thematics of documentary photography.

Death of a Republican Soldier, Spain, near Cerro Muriano, 1936, Robert Capa

Death of a Republican Soldier, Spain, near Cerro Muriano, 1936, Robert Capa

A key derivative of documentary photography, considered by myself to be largely significant in the shaping of its thematically structured form, is the seemingly fast paced ‘combat photography’. But even this area holds certain levels of suspicion regarding whether or not a photo is staged. Amongst a number of other photographers accused of staging war reportage, including the Turkish Narciso Contreras and the Swedish photographer Paul Hansen, there lies an image iconic to photojournalism and expertly demonstrates the mediums ability to capture and represent the most alarming, upfront and shocking situations of the darkest kind. But was this image real, or was it staged? Dubbed ‘Falling Soldier’ the image, captured in 1936, depicts a loyalist soldier falling to the ground after being fatally struck from a bullet fired by the opposing Fascists. But a cloud of controversy hangs over this iconic image, as people started to question its authenticity relative to previous acknowledging of fakery.

For me the notion of an image, relative to the thematics of documentary photography, would come across as unfaithful if passed as real, but was in fact fakery. To broadcast imagery so intense and mind-blowing whilst evidently trying to portray an experience or event that happened, exactly as it was seen, is a major flaw in the purpose of documentary and it sabotages the conventional consequences of war reportage; no outside artistic direction, intervening or influence is introduced. Yes traditional combat photographers may emphasis and exaggerate, but for me, staging is a definitive no, unless the artist acknowledges such occurrences.

Luckily for Robert Capa, his imagery has only ever been questioned, and he proclaims it was pure luck, remaining composed on the rare occasions that he has been asked about such fakery. But Robert Capa had previously admitted to staging photography before this moment. Like many modern combat photographers, the higher command, within the rebel forces, would restrict the areas available to Capa and Gerda Taro, his partner, therefore they would often stage images for added impact. Soldiers firing mortars at nothing, men running down the road guns blazing, that sort of thing. The only real action available to them frequently, were the screaming civilians fleeing the scene. So staging was considered a necessity at some points. But for me, knowing this particular notion of emphasis has reduced my appreciation of photojournalistic work. I understand a true reflection of reality is not possible through the lens, but the photograph can depict a scenario that existed, whilst fakery warps that existence.

Childs Play, Nathan Downing, 2015

Childs Play, Nathan Downing, 2015

Childs Play, Nathan Downing, 2015

Childs Play, Nathan Downing, 2015

As a group intent on capturing something related to the staging of photography, we decided to create an image that mocked the faking of documentary war reportage. We determined an interesting way to depict this unjust staging and used toy soldiers, ultimately demonstrating that we have full control of the setting, arrangement and photographical direction intended for the viewer to decode. The soldiers stand out as something so conventionally unrealistic, something that even children have the ability to construct. Really emphasising the child’s play that is staged crime reportage. A black and white adjustment layer, discovered in my photoshop tutorials, was introduced to the image as well as a film grain filter, this highlights a relevant association with combat photography, especially in the work produced by the photographic cooperative Magnum Photos

The tricking of the viewer shown by fake combat photography almost angers me, and I am to make sure I personally develop this project to its full potential to really reinforce the mockery imagined by our group. The seemingly large knick this controversial topic has left in the trustworthiness of documentary photography, for me, has made me think more about the documentation of said ‘reality’ and if its ever possible to reveal an exact replication of the real world through the magnificence of a camera.


Cosgrove, B. (2013) “Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’: The Modest Birth of an Iconic Picture”, Time Magazine [Viewed 16 Feb 2015] Available at:

Grenier, R., Lacouture, J. and Pollak, A. (1989) Robert Capa (Photofile). United Kingdom: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Magnum Photos. “Robert Capa Biography” 2014, Magnum Photos Online [Viewed 16 Feb 2015] Available at:

Shore, R. (2014) Post-Photography: The Artist with a Camera. United Kingdom: Laurence King Publishing.

Vaill, Amanda. (2014) “Did Robert Capa Fake ‘Falling Soldier’?”, Foreign Policy Magazine [Viewed 16 Feb 2015] Available at:

Whelan, R. (2002) “Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier: a detective story” Aperture, Spring, 2002, Issue 166, p.48(8)