Chapter 4. Using False Witness

When surveying a place one can grasp when it stands for. Here one is not too selective. Surveying a place seeks to capture a sense of what the place is, and so whether a phenomena interests one personally is not really relevant. Here one seeks to collect as many facts as is possible to make sense of the place. Taking pictures of the comings and goings of a location gives us something in evidence for building an interpretation of what people in that location seek to achieve.

For instance, a survey about St Peter’s Basilica in Rome yields images of men in Roman collars and women religious garbs, and the sale of rosaries, crucifixes, scapulars and other religious trinklets. The Church stands imposingly and haughtily in the centre and is flanked by statues of the Apostles and other saints. One grasps quickly that the pursuit of religion is a major preoccupation of people here. With a further accumulation of photographic evidence, one sees a fat American tourist licking off a triple scooped ice-cream overflowing the cone, a stall owner trying to sell his overpriced miniature David to some Japanese tourist and a young Italian couple in intimate embrace… Now a more detailed interpretation emerges: not all think about the invisible God; for some, their belly is their god, others are serving mammon, and other enjoy a lustful encounter.

Such interpretations are perhaps too judgmental. As the survey proceeds and more photographs are taken, the more accurate the interpretation becomes. Following the American tourist back, we capture the moment when he rushes across the square and passes the ice-cream cone, dripping but almost intact, on to his wife. Back at the same side of the square one sees the Japanese tourist walking on without the David. The peddler places the miniature back in its place. Just in time, the camera picks up the look of disappointment on his face as he turns and glances at what appears like a family of 5, poorly dressed and huddled together, idling. They seem faceless because of the shallow depth of field. The Italian couple get ready to walk away, and the man rubs his hand gently over the woman’s somewhat protruding belly, and the camera manages to capture the moment…

Finally we enter the Basilica and see the opulence that almost scandalizes, at once so beautiful. We are beckoned to record the priceless collection of art, the polished marble and all the silver and gold. Closing in on the main piece, we see Jesus of Nazareth crucified, naked and suspended. That image is the same one carved into the crucifix I wear. I am myself a Roman Catholic, and a member of this religious institution. Immediately the aspiration to offer a disinterested survey of this institution becomes impossibly challenging. In spite of pretentions of neutrality, of “researcher objectivity”, my interpretations will be biased. I am preferential. This is my institution. I will want to make sense of what /I see and record in the best possible light. I will excuse it, rationalize on its behalf, and yes, I will present it in such wise that it is free from moral reproach: “someone needs to put more brochures about our work on behalf of the poor at the entrance, with extracts of the Holy Father’s encyclical extolling the preferential love for the poor.” I will bear false witness.

Yet such false witness, although inappropriate in some situations, may in others be very useful. The willingness to speak well of something else invites one to develop good reasons and aspirations on that thing’s behalf, and to artificially engineer a preferred state of affairs. It is an occasion to offer, in its stead, what it should do, why it should do that, and to suggest that it has in fact done just that, or else that it will explore doing so. One may even by extension alert relevant people to get what needs to be done realised. One does not merely collect evidence, but begins very soon to fabricate evidence. From the point of view of someone collecting data this is unprofessional and unscholarly. But who said anything about merely collecting data? There is a place and a time to record and report the truth but there may also be a place and time to manufacture the truth.

Organizational theorists have suggested that, rather than speak out truthfully against organizational leaders who lie about their motives, we should encourage them. For example, a CEO who is invited to give a public speech about the importance of caring for the environment or social justice might not really believe what he is saying. He might merely be interested in the profit making achievements of his business, but gave this speech as a marketing and publicity stunt. James March for instance invites us to consider if such leaders who pretend to be good might not actually be experimenting with being good. While they may be hypocritical about their true intentions in business, their hypocrisy may not actually be permanent. Meaning, the hypocrisy could be transitional. Given the chance to make public these good reasons for being concerned with the environment or poverty in society, he is on the one hand making these reasons available to himself, and also trying out the role of the ethical leader. Even if such leaders are not bad to start with, institutional pressures to achieve bottom line results constantly threaten to narrow the concerns of leaders. Stimulating such hypocritical pretensions can be a very good way of recalling the things that one should care for. Each speech is like a sign-post, recalling and directing him to these displaced ideas.

From this point of view, a planned retreat with one’s camera collecting and fabricating evidence may be beneficial for one’s institution thinking. Photographic surveys of institutions can supply such useful, false witness especially when one has a vested interest in the good name of such institutions. The point is not to lie, period, but make the lie an expression of one’s own beliefs and one’s action. It is to make good one’s lies. It is, to borrow March, to indulge in a kind of hypocrisy that is transitional. Such “institution focused” photographic studies and their products are no doubt a “marketing gimmick”, but perhaps they need not be just a marketing gimmick. They are occasions and incentives to change thinking, and to change behaviours.

How does one conduct such an institution focused study that may be ethically transformative? In semiotic terms, the pedagogical task is to design a series of activities that would place signposts of important ethical ideas before the institutional leaders’ field of vision and that of members of the institution. The confrontation with these sign-posts, interpreted by a bias on behalf of the institution, could then inspire ethically informed idealized versions of the particular organization. This could then lead, through further and infinite semiosis, to the philosophical elaboration of its ideal ethos. That can in turn lead to changes in morally relevant behaviours. I outline a possible study that is to be completed in these steps, or something like this:

1) Literature Review. Find out what it means for your organization to live up to an ethical code of conduct. Collect photographs of what other relevant institutions stand for, or boast that they do.

2) Formulate Hypothesis: “My institution/business/society exhibits all the above desirable qualities…”

3) Data Collection. Conduct a photographic “audit”. Take pictures of peoples, happenings, the place, the environment…

4) Data Analysis. Examine the pictures. Look at the “data”. Ask yourself: which of these speak well of my organization? Celebrate them and highlight them (see Step 9, below). Then ask: which of these suggest that there is a gap between reality and the ideal? Take note of these gaps (see Step 5, next).

5) Fabricate Evidence. Address those gaps. What seems missing? Return to look for more evidence. Re-interpret things and events; some of these, though not at all intended, may fit what you are looking for, and could be rationalized. Develop new and better motives. What else is really missing? Make up its existence, lie about it and secretly make good the lie.

6) Prove Hypothesis. Drawing on your data and evidence, evaluate your institution/business/society positively.

7) Write Report. Produce a pictorial survey report or image gallery when ready, showcasing the institution/business/society as ethically robust in many ways.

8 ) Public Defence. Develop a supporting philosophy and an ethics that speaks to your ethically minded clients/consumers/stakeholders. Develop those good reasons why you care, so that you come across more convincing, and leave others the impression that you’ve thought about this seriously. Plan programmes and initiatives to help the organization appear ethically coherent. Make these available to the marketing department.

9) Publish. Publicize your “achievements”. Market your institution/business/society with appropriate slogans. Complement your marketing material with appropriately captioned images taken.

Related works:

Jude Chua Soo Meng, “Saving the Teacher’s Soul: Exorcising the Terrors of Performativity” in London Review of Education, Vol. 7 (2), 2009, 159-167

Also revised and shortened as “Using False Witness: How Photography May Transform Organizational Thinking” in, powered by Focal Press.


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