For anyone interested in seeing the photos discussed in this essay, they are featured here:
While perusing my e-mail inbox, I came across a chain letter with the subject line of "Photographer." When I opened it, I was met by a stunning set of photographs of a man at the Grand Canyon in Arizona jumping from a formation within the canyon to an adjacent cliff. Accompanying the photos were blurbs emphasizing the danger of the man's jump. But, after researching their authenticity, I found that this type of letter, in presenting incredible images and information, almost always omits or misrepresents certain crucial details, whether it be by design or by accident. That idea resonates with a quote attributed to photographer Ansel Adams: "A photograph is usually looked at - seldom looked into."
The photos themselves, which, according to the letter, were taken by photographer Hans van der Vorst, were a sight to see. The beauty of the setting alone was eye-catching, with the setting sun shining its remaining light upon two sandy brown rock formations in the foreground. In the first photo, atop a solitary formation is a man in t-shirt, jeans, and sandals taking photos of the sunset. The canyon behind him, awash in deep shades of blue and purple, makes for a background of amazing depth. The letter states that, after the sun had set below the horizon, the man packed up his camera and prepared himself for the jump back to where he had originally leapt from. The second, third, and fourth photos in the series capture the man about to leap, stretched in mid-air, and grabbing hold with only his right arm and foot onto the cliff, respectively. That dangerous feat became much more eye-catching than the beauty of the Canyon.
The letter stresses the man could have, had he not landed successfully, fallen almost 3000 feet to the canyon floor below. But I was skeptical: Would someone be so stupid as to jump over an almost half-mile drop? While toting camera equipment and wearing sandals? The possibility was there, of course, but I had received too many letters that ultimately turned out to be hoaxes to accept these photos were real. I soon found the answer on the Urban Legends Reference Page, a database devoted to debunking myths and misinformation. Their entry explains that the photos of the jump are real, but due to what they do not capture, viewers are led to believe the man could have fallen much further than he would have. However, an additional photo, taken at an alternate angle of the same rock formations, shows a connecting shelf that is a markedly shorter distance than 3000 feet. The entry concludes the worst the man could have potentially suffered was "some bruises or maybe a broken arm or leg, not a plunge into the depths of the Grand Canyon" (Mikkelson.) Even though I learned the photos are not fake in themselves, I felt peeved by how they had been shaped by an exaggerated description into something they are not.
A photo is simply a framing of reality. A photographer can only compose a photo by making use of what they can capture, by choosing either to include or exclude something. But, as this chain letter illustrates, the truth of a photo can be even further twisted by embroidered hyperbole. True, the photos are exciting to look at, but they would not have been as exciting had the ledge below been included in the composition of the photos. Nor would they have been half as compelling if the letter's description emphasized how the man could have fallen a staggering ten feet, suffering the doom of a few bruises. Letters like these are cleverly crafted illusions: it is not simply what you don't see in the photos of a man's dramatic leap that is deceiving, but what you are told to see.
Mikkelson, Barbara and David P.. "Grand Canyon Leap of Faith." Urban Legends Reference Page.