Morris writes:

I have often wondered why it was Frederick’s photograph, and not Sabrina Harman’s photograph, that became iconic…My belief is that Harman’s photograph is more complicated and requires context. Who is that man standing on the right of the frame? He seems disengaged. What is he doing? When I interviewed Lieutenant Colonel Steve Jordan, who was the director of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center (JIDC) at Abu Ghraib, he described the picture to me as a picture of Sergeant Frederick clipping his nails. It was only after I explained to him that Frederick was looking at the photograph he had just taken that Jordan realized he had misinterpreted what he was looking at. It makes a big difference. In one version Frederick is indifferent to the scene next to him; in the other, he is contemplating his image of it - an image that he saw the need to record and preserve.

So of the two photographs that could have become famous, one shows the Hooded Man, his arms splayed, head tilted in agony, placed in this position by unseen torturers. The second shows essentially the same image, except that it is complicated by Frederick’s presence. He hardly dominates the frame, but he gives us one more thing to think about, particularly if, as Morris argues, Frederick is caught in an act of contemplation. We see the first picture and we feel we know exactly what is happening. We see the second and, even though it’s a photograph of precisely the same event, we’re less sure of what is happening.

Of course, the first photograph, the photograph that gives us a false sense of knowledge, is the one that became famous, and this is hardly a coincidence. We ask of our photographs that they be both emotionally compelling and truthful, and when we believe we have found these elements in a photograph the two build off one another. The emotional power of the image is bolstered by its truthfulness, it’s supposed reality, and the reality is driven home by the emotional power. Certainly this is the process that made the Hooded Man image so famous: it is both emotionally raw and reveals a dark truth about an unpopular war. But the truth behind a powerful image is never a simple one. In fact, the more powerful the image, the more likely that it’s context is complicated, in need of explanation. The best photographs often depict moments that are beyond description, but that does not mean that they are exempt from reality.

As Morris writes in what is perhaps the book’s key paragraph:

Photographs attract false beliefs the way flypaper attracts flies. Why my skepticism? Because vision is privileged in our society and our sensorium. We trust it; we place our confidence in it. Photograph allows us to uncritically think. We imagine that photographs provide a magic path to the truth. What’s more, photographs allow us to think we know more than we really do. We can imagine a context that isn’t really there. In the pre-photographic era, images came directly from our eyes to our brains and were part of our experience of reality. With the advent of photography, images were torn free from the world, snatched from the fabric of reality, and enshrined as separate entities. They became more like dreams. It is no wonder that we really don’t know how to deal with them.

Believing is Seeing addresses photographs from many different eras, but the controversies they evoke always arise from people asking too much of photographs, pretending that they serve as evidence not only of the moment in time they depict but as narrative distillations of wars and political situations and other relentlessly complicated human affairs.

So what will be the fate of us digital types, who ask so much of photographs, understand them so poorly, and take so many of them? An ever-growing percentage of the planet now has the ability, via cellphone or other digital device, to instantly capture whatever images they find compelling in daily life—thus thrusting those images from the plane of “reality” into the plane of photography, with all the complicated baggage that entails. The problem is only exacerbated by the Internet, as the farther a photograph gets from its photographer, the more likely it is that the context behind it will be lost. The ever-increasing presence of photography in our lives does not normalize our relationship to it. If anything, it deepens the mystery.

Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.