In this NY Times blog, Errol Morris states that without a caption, context, or some idea of what a picture is a picture of, you can’t answer the question of whether a picture is true or false. That question in and of itself makes no sense whatsoever, as Morris rightly points out. True or false in what regard? Specific questions must be asked in order to even authenticate the asking of whether a photograph is true or false. Are we asking about the time and place of a picture, the people or objects that happen to be in it, the meaning of the photograph itself? I believe context within a picture can greatly shape the way we view and think of an image.
As Morris demonstrates in the article, Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire, a picture of a boat with no caption, no background info, no mention of it in an article, is simply a picture of a boat. It is when additional, printed information accompanies said photograph that we allow ourselves to associate the image with the text. The generic boat now becomes the Titanic. Those who are familiar with the event will now associate the image with whatever their minds conjure: panic, sinking, icebergs, maiden voyage, death, etc. Those who are unfamiliar with the story will still view the image as that of a miscellaneous boat, albeit a named one, or apply a personal experience to it.
However, just because we now have information to accompany a picture, doesn’t mean we are able to accurately pass judgement or verify the image to be “true”. In what context is the photograph being presented? How are we to know that the information accompanying the photo is true? Obviously some pictures need no introduction, no caption, no comment, as the photo truly does represent a thousand words. Pictures of massive line-ups of worn, tired, upset, angry people outside the Superdome in New Orleans after Katrina come to mind. But again, the context of a picture is everything. If we were shown these same pictures years and years later and asked to describe what we saw, the answers would vary drastically. Though the general premise would be the same — the people in the pictures are clearly in need of aid and assistance — who would know WHY they were in such a state? It's all speculation.
To play devil’s advocate for a moment though, I don’t see why the context for a picture can’t exist in the mind of the viewer. Why is it necessary that we be fully aware of the context in which a picture is presented? If we like a picture, we like a picture. The events surrounding said photograph should have nothing to do with the way we artistically view it. With the way we critically view it, sure. In that case, context would play a significant role in the way an image is dictated. But art for the sake of art is viewed in many different ways by everyone. A picture is still worth a thousand words, it’s simply a matter of whose words they are.