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For Errol Morris, it's lies, damned lies and photography

Errol Morris, author of Believing is Seeing

Nubar Alexanian

Errol Morris doesn't have much truck with the old saw about a picture being worth 1,000 words. For him, a picture, especially a documentary photograph, often needs 1,000 words – at the very least. And sometimes, if five or six photos are involved, an entire book.

The 63-year-old Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker and director of TV commercials (more than 80 for Miller High Life alone) has done just that with Believing is Seeing, a 310-page illustration-packed plunge into "the mysteries of photography."

Amazingly, it's the first book for this self-described fan of irony, who in 1989 received a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, and won an Academy Award in 2003 for The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. As Morris documentary devoteeswill attest, the man's nothing if not an obsessive empiricist for whom little, if anything, is self-evident. Witness 1988's The Thin Blue Line, in which Morris conclusively demonstrated the innocence of a drifter wrongly convicted in the murder of a Texas police officer. (How many times did he make us see that same chocolate milkshake hit the pavement before we clued into its significance? Eleven? Thirteen?)

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The same relentless, repetitive rigour is evident in Believing, as he scrutinizes seven documentary photographs, famous and otherwise (the oldest date from the Crimean War of 1853-56, the most recent shot six years ago in Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison) to "mine the gap" between the "swatch of reality" conveyed in the image and the world in which it was shot. In the process, he ping-pongs the reader between states of rapt absorption and eye-rubbing irritation.

It's the former philosophy student's contention that "all photographs are posed. To take a photograph is to pose something," as he confidently and jovially remarked the other day on the phone from his office in Boston. "Every frame excludes something and for that reason alone you can consider it a version of posing."

Enshrine a photograph as a separate entity and it can become prey to all sorts of assumptions, presumptions and misconceptions – what Morris likes to call "social meaning." Better instead to see the photograph as an opportunity to go on a field trip into history – as Morris literally did in 2005, travelling to the Crimean site where, 150 years before, the pioneering documentary photographer Roger Fenton had shot two now-famous photographs of a cannonball-strewn valley.

Believing is Seeing had its first incarnation as a series of online essays, mostly on photographs, that Morris wrote for The New York Times' Opinionator blog. The project started in 2007 with an interrogation of the infamous "hooded man" photograph from Abu Ghraib in late 2003, and the 2006 front-page photo in the Times of Iraqi Ali Shalal Qaissi claiming (and the Times largely affirming – wrongly, it turned out) to be the hooded man.

Nine months later, Morris posted a complementary rumination on the equally notorious snapshot of a smiling Abu Ghraib MP Sabrina Harman giving the thumbs-up over the corpse of a tortured Iraqi inmate. These pictures subsequently became key elements in Standard Operating Procedure, Morris's acclaimed 2008 documentary, in which he argued that the pictures, on their own, scapegoated the likes of Harman and that their content was not as "obvious" as it appeared to be.

"I continue the discussion in book form," Morris explained, "because a movie can only go so far and I felt in written form I can address things that would be far too difficult to put in a movie, especially in a movie that had no narration by me."

In Believing, an expert on facial expressions tells Morris that Sgt. Harman's smile is not one of genuine enjoyment but a "forced smile, the social smile." We learn that the Iraqi pictured in the Times in 2006 eventually admitted he was not the "hooded man" in the famous photograph – though he was in Abu Ghraib at the same time and had been photographed wearing the same sort of hooded garment. (Morris says he knows the name of the "real" hooded man, Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh, and spent a year searching, unsuccessfully, to find him.)

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"I never saw myself as a writer," Morris said with a chuckle. "I had writer's block for, well, decades … so when the Times asked me to write I never thought I could do it. But I did and now I've written maybe a million words." One result of the spew is that Morris now has two more books on the go, neither of which deals directly with photographs.

Nevertheless, his fascination with the myth that photos, "snatched from the fabric of reality," can be "a magic path to the truth," remains undiminished. In theory at least, the plenitude of documentary images out there suggests an infinity of Believing is Seeing sequels.

In fact, Morris confesses to wanting to do a book on "just this one bizarre photograph" he came upon two or three years ago. A picture of "a landscape covered with eggs in every direction," it was taken on an isolated, barren island in the Hawaiian archipelago in 1892. The more Morris has delved into its content and circumstances, the more it's become a kind of ur-image, "connecting me to Laura Bush, Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind …and on and on in a sort of marvellous shaggy photo story." Does he have a title for this story? "How about," he laughed, " The End of Everything?"

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