Lie Of The Camera

It has often been said that one picture is worth a thousand words. This is true, but the downside is that just as words may be used to mislead, so may pictures, and the lies of the camera are often more subtle, more easily concocted, and more plausible than the lies of the tongue or of the printed word.

The first commercial photographic process used silver-coated copper plates and iodine vapours. Developed by Joseph Nicephore Niepce and Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, it was revealed to the public at Paris in August 1839. (1)

For many years after the inception of photography, exposure times were incredibly slow, sometimes taking twenty minutes or more to capture an image successfully. Obviously, in its early stages the craft was not suitable for moving images. Posing for portraits led to problems too; can even a yogi sit perfectly still for twenty minutes? This necessitated some acceptable sleight-of-hand. Johann Baptist Isenring (1796-1860) introduced the practice of retouching daguerreotypes. The image was painted over and the pupils of the eyes were scratched on the silvered plate to cover the sitter’s blinking. (2)

The process of miniature painting supplanted portrait photography in the 1850s, and:

“...it became the general practice to remove blemishes and add points of beauty lacking in nature, by retouching.” (3)

Hard on the heels of the sleight-of-hand practised by reputable photographers for aesthetic reasons came murkier practices for financial gain. The American confidence trickster William Mumler incurred the wrath of the law for producing spirit photographs; if he is to be believed, he produced his first such picture in March 1861, (4) though even he wasn’t the first; at a preliminary hearing in May 1869 it was claimed that spirit photography had been going for some twelve to fourteen years in the United States even then. (5)

Many people swore by Mumler, as indeed many people swore by the outrageous Cottingley fairies hoax of 1917, which is too well documented to require further referencing here. But it isn’t necessary to resort to such grand fakery to deceive a credulous public, or even to hoodwink experts.

Just as the early photographers retouched daguerreotypes for aesthetic reasons, so too do modern video cameramen resort to faking footage for the sake of presentation. This practice is extremely common, even in news programmes. How many times have you watched two people meeting on-camera in the following manner?

One camera follows somebody into a room, and as the door opens the scene switches to another camera behind the desk of the second person. The two greet each other as though they had just met.

As presentations of this nature are clearly staged and would be recognised as such by any viewer of reasonable intelligence, they are not dishonest, even though it is customary not to caption them reconstructions. But such video footage or still photographs which are not either obvious set ups or properly captioned, are lies just as much as lies spoken verbally or written in ink.

The Free Satpal Campaign has used and is continuing to use a photograph of a bruised and battered Satpal Ram in its campaign literature. This photograph, which has been released to the media, shows Ram with his right eye closed by swelling and his right cheek cut or grazed. Although it has never been captioned overtly as such, (6) the reader is invited to draw one of two inferences: a) this was what Ram looked like after Clarke Pearce had finished with him, or b) this is the result of a beating by racist prison officers.

Ram was born January 25, 1966, which means that the night he murdered Clarke Pearce he was not quite 21 years old. Although it is difficult to judge a person’s age from a photograph, it is evident that this particular photograph is of a somewhat later vintage. This means that the injuries sustained by Ram therein must have happened some time during his incarceration, which leaves the inference that they were caused by a prison beating.

Obviously, one possibility is that the injuries were self-inflicted. We can though rule this out; we can also rule out accident. Having done this, there remain two possibilities: Ram sustained his injuries in the course of a fight with/assault by another inmate, or from a member or members of the prison staff.

The Free Satpal Campaign leave us in no doubt that Ram has been beaten and abused repeatedly by prison staff during his sentence, and that such violence has been used against him gratuitously out of racism and/or a desire to break him spiritually.

Although neither of these two possibilities can be ruled out entirely, a few observations should be noted. The time when prison officers could beat prisoners gratuitously has more or less gone, in Britain at least. This is due as much to a change in attitudes as to improved safeguards, complaints procedures, etc. At one time, this sort of thing did happen fairly frequently, although even then it was confined largely to certain types of inmates. (7) Judicial corporal punishment of adults was abolished by the Criminal Justice Act of 1948. (8)

Within the prison system the only real punishment that can be handed out is “The Block” - solitary confinement in basic cells for 23 hours a day. The only real danger an inmate suffers therein is to his sanity - being bored to death.

There are of course other, more subtle ways, of giving an inmate a hard time exactly the same way there are of giving people a hard time in the outside world. It is though most likely that Ram’s face was bruised as a result of one of his regular run-ins with authority. When an inmate is known to be violent - and it should never be forgotten that Ram murdered a stranger in a frenzied knife attack - prison staff don’t take any chances. Inmates who misbehave are dealt with mob-handed. If Ram resisted a transfer or refused to leave a certain place when instructed, etc, a contingent of prison officers would be sent along to remove him. It is possible that one or some officers went “over the top” and thumped him undeservedly. Well, thumped him anyway. It is though far more likely that Ram brought this on himself and that the bruising he suffered was reasonable indeed unavoidable under the circumstances.

The problem here is that in the absence of incriminating video evidence a situation like this is always the word of one man against a group of men with a common purpose and a sense of solidarity, so Ram could be telling the truth. There is though, another factor we should take into account. The prison population, which now stands at well in excess of fifty thousand, contains many black, Asian and other minority prisoners, some of whom are serving sentences for crimes of equal or greater magnitude than Ram. The overwhelming majority of them never complain about cell beatings or other abuse, racially motivated or otherwise. The most likely explanation is that just as Ram brought his incarceration on himself by murdering Clarke Pearce, so too has he brought all his subsequent suffering on himself by lesser acts of violence, unwarranted protest, and being generally disruptive and undisciplined.


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