This photograph was first published in Life Magazine with the accurate but less than compelling caption, “Joel Sternfeld; McLean, Virginia; December 1978.″
It isn’t staged. Sternfeld was driving through Virginia, saw the house on fire, stopped, snapped the photo, and happened to document a fireman in the foreground completely ignoring the blaze while he nonchalantly shops for the perfect pumpkin.
In that sense, it’s real.
In another sense, however, the picture is a lie. The emotions that the image almost inevitably evokes come from a wrong interpretation. On the face of it, there seems to be a sinister backstory of a family losing their home while officials stand negligently by. That would be interesting and entertainingly enraging, but no such luck. This was a controlled fire for training purposes, and the fireman was on a break.
In a 2004 interview, Sternfeld talked about this kind of misinterpretation of photos…
Photography has always been capable of manipulation. Even more subtle and more invidious is the fact that any time you put a frame to the world, it’s an interpretation. I could get my camera and point it at two people and not point it at the homeless third person to the right of the frame, or not include the murder that’s going on to the left of the frame.
You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo. There’s an infinite number of ways you can do this: photographs have always been authored.
(via Iconic Photos)