Before alteration or doctoring, photographs and videos impose many unseen prejudices, even before computational manipulation enters the picture. Filming strips acts from their broader context. The qualities of an optical instrument and the film or sensor used to capture a scene can change the way it appears. So can the framing of a shot, the perspective from which the scene is shown, or the way audio is captured for it. No computers are even required.
For example, the CSPAN footage of the Acosta incident is shot from two cameras, one behind Acosta and framed on President Trump, and the other from the side, showing a wider shot of Acosta in the front row, addressing the president. The latter shot is the one from which the interaction between Acosta and the aide can be seen. But because the two are close to one another at some distance, the image flattens the viewer’s perspective, making it difficult to tell how their arms and bodies are interacting as they grapple for the microphone.
When the aide finally lays her hand on the mic, her reach looks bold, although not combative, and Acosta attempts to defuse the situation: “Pardon me, Ma’am, I’m—” he attempts. Then the aide, having been gently reproached, physically crumbles before Acosta. She crouches to the floor between him and the president. She was probably trying to clear a line of sight between the two, but from side of the room, she appears meek or servile, subordinating herself to Acosta. In that moment, the wide camera shows the two men in profile but the aide facing the camera in the foreground. Viewed from the angle of a news camera in a slightly different position, she becomes the subject of the shot, and it becomes difficult not to empathize with her accidental embarrassment, now captured and broadcast globally.
Lens-based media are media of perspective. Whether or not the pretzeling of arms was “doctored” by Infowars, and whether or not it was knowingly disseminated in its manipulated fashion by Sanders, the video itself never captured “truth” anyway; it recorded a sequence of events in space at a moment in time, offering them as raw material for interpretive effort.
Interpretation is at the heart of this conflict. Before the dispute over the mic began, Acosta had been challenging Trump on his characterization of the migrant caravan as an “invasion” of immigrants. “Why did you characterize it as such?” Acosta asked. “Because I consider it an invasion,” Trump responded. “You and I have a difference of opinion.”
Trump knows that the visual and verbal rhetoric of an “invasion” has political utility. Invaders come to steal and ransack. Images of the caravan—also captures of “real reality” by the lens—can easily be selected to represent different views on the caravan, from a hulking mass of anonymous people, extending to the horizon, to the fragile desperation of an individual family. Acosta accused Trump of an interpretive act that can’t be defended. “They’re hundreds and hundreds of miles away,” he charged. “That’s not an invasion.”
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