Originally Appeared in “Beyond Google Earth,” Places Journal, May 2015:
In our image-saturated culture, it’s natural to feel skeptical about the veracity of photographs — we understand that an image shows nothing more than a decontextualized slice of space, a particular spot at a moment in time. Yet certain types of photography have yet to earn our distrust. I am thinking especially of satellite photos. Offering what can appear an almost definitive god’s-eye view, and avoiding the subjective biases of human picture makers, machine-made satellite images might seem the ultimate example of neutral, just-the-facts visual documentation.
It’s natural to question the veracity of photographs. Yet certain types of images have yet to earn our distrust.
Once limited largely to weather forecasts and military operations, satellite-based photography has in recent years become an integral part of our daily lives through Google Earth and other networked mapping services. Easy access to satellite imagery has indeed provided us an apparently infinite source of information about the surface of our planet. Yet this neutrality is illusory: satellite imagery is constructed by systems which do not simply present but also interpret and transform the raw visual data, affecting how and what we see.