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Photos Lie

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"A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know."
— Diane Arbus

Family portraits generally all look the same. The family all standing together, smiling and happy, hugging each other and wearing ugly Christmas sweaters. However, the photo doesn't show what happens before and after you take it, which is sometimes the most important part. Usually comes in two varieties.

Played for Laughs, you'll see a scene of everyone arguing and yelling, but they stop instantly to pose when someone takes out camera and usually start arguing again once the picture is taken.

Played for Drama, the photo is usually shown first and there doesn't seem like there's anything wrong until someone reveals the story of what happened before or after it was taken. In that case, it will usually be a Convenient Photograph. (Which is not the inverse of this trope because it's possible for a convenient photograph to be misleading.)

See Family Portrait of Characterization. Compare Former Friends Photo, where the picture doesn't lie but doesn't match up with current state of things, either.


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    Played For Laughs 
  • In Malcolm in the Middle, everybody's arguing as usual. As soon as Lois counts to 3, they instantly stop and strike a perfect pose. Once the picture's taken, it's back to Shouty Town.
  • Averted on Soap, where the camera catches them in mid-anarchy.
  • 3rd Rock from the Sun did the arguing family version. Everyone was posed smiling, but then Dick, no longer able to tolerate the shallowness, let off a Big "NO!" the split the second the camera went off, ruining the picture.
  • There's a Microsoft ad showing a mom taking family pictures, and there's not a single picture with all of the members behaving at once. So she uses the advertised tool to photoshop them into one perfect picture.
  • When the baby is born on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the whole family crowds around the hospital bed to argue about what to name him. When the doctor offers to take a photo, they all stop and smile, then immediately start to argue again after.
  • On How I Met Your Mother, Lily goes out of her way to keep Ted's date out of her birthday photo. Ted later calls her out on how forced and faked her birthday photos are.
  • In Gunnerkrigg Court, when we see an old photo of Surma as a young teen, she looks nearly identical to her daughter, Antimony, down to her deadpan facial expression. Several chapters later, a flashback to the day the picture was taken shows Surma complaining about how serious she looks in the picture, and quickly makes it clear that her personality was quite different from her daughter's.
    Surma: I bet it looks stupid! I always look so serious in photos! I bet I had on me serious face!
  • While not a photo as such, one episode of M*A*S*H has Colonel Potter painting the other six main characters who are bickering after Hawkeye, BJ, and Winchester weren't talking to each and Houlihan, Klinger, and Mulcahy lied to them in order to get them to forgive each other and now the lies were unraveling. The painting shows them as a happy family.

    Played For Drama 
  • On an episode of Burn Notice, Madelyn gets out an old Christmas photo from Michael's childhood. It seems happy enough at first, but then she points out Michael's black eye and how he got it.
  • Zig-zagged in an episode of Royal Pains. Hank's father gives Hank a picture of himself with Hank and Evan when they were young kids, and Evan remembers what a good day that was. Hank disagrees, and flashbacks reveal that the photo was taken after their father used his sons to help him steal back a tractor that had been repossessed. As more flashbacks are shown, though, it turns out that Hank learned some of his valuable present-day skills from that experience, and the three of them bonded over the whole thing: it actually was a good day.
  • In the Watchmen, the Minutemen photograph shown early in the movie seems innocuous enough until later on when a flashback reveals the Comedian attempted to rape Silk Spectre
  • In Sandra and Woo, when Cloud asks his mother about her childhood in Burma, she looks through her old diary and comments that, while her childhood was apparently quite bad, the pictures she's got from back then gives a much more positive impression.
  • Judge Dredd: A close inspection of Dredd's childhood photo reveals that the only real part of the photo was Dredd, everything else was composited in because he had no parents.
  • In Dexter, Dexter has a lot of typical happy-looking family photos with his adoptive family. However, flashbacks show that Dexter hated posing since he didn't feel anything, and was persuaded by his adoptive father Harry to "play the game" and pretend to be a normal person. So, all of his smiles are totally fake in those pictures.
  • Another episode of How I Met Your Mother uses this trope again. Future Ted shows his kids a photo of brunch with the gang and Ted's family, but reveals that just after that picture was taken, Ted had to confront his dad about him "cheating" on his mom because his parents never told him they were divorced, Robin was irrationally upset at Ted's mom, and Lily and Marshall were trying to seduce each other out of spite. It Makes Sense in Context.
  • The P!nk song Family Portrait
    In our family portrait, we look pretty happy
    Let's play pretend, act like it goes naturally
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 takes this trope just a bit more literally with the photos that have Dawn in them.
  • Selim Bradley of Fullmetal Alchemist has several family photos where he stands smiling with his parents. The only thing is, he has a different family in each one, because some of the photos are decades old.
  • Discussed in Criminal Minds. Rossi tells Hotch that it's easy to pretend to be happy for a few seconds, and he has plenty of happy pictures with his ex-wives. Since they're looking at the happy family photo of an abusive husband and the wife who finally snapped and killed him...
  • The movie version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows starts with a scene of Hermione performing a memory spell on her parents and editing herself out of each and every photo in their house.
  • The premise of the film The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow. Presented in the form of a collection of files, the film revolves largely around a Spooky Photograph of a campsite that seems relatively innocuous until the camera progresses from showing particular details to showing things no viewer could see with the naked eye. (The contents of a sideview mirror's reflection at an angle not seen in the photo, the presence of figures obscured behind the trees.) Eventually, elements of the photo begin to change outright, suggesting that the investigator who's researching the photo is beginning to piece together a narrative about the more sinister context in which the photo was taken, as well as hinting that the photo itself may be possessed.
  • In the Supernatural episode "What Is And What Should Never Be" (S02, Ep20), Dean sees happy photos of his family including his mother wearing matching Christmas sweaters and at Sam's graduation. However, this is all part of a dream state created by a Djinn, and in reality his mother died when Sam was an infant.
  • Taken very literally in Veronica Mars. Veronica figures out that the bus crash in Season 2 is linked to Woody Goodman's Little League team, and he molested several of the boys he mentored. She spends an entire episode going painstakingly through every single name on the photograph... only to realize that the actual Big Bad, Cassidy Casablancas, was "Not Pictured", which allowed him to kill Woody, try to kill Keith, and put Mac in mortal danger.
  • Ghost in the Shell: Due to the prevalence of cyberbrains and how easy it is to hack them, photographs that have nothing to do with reality show up several times. In the first movie, a man is convinced he has a family and is devastated when he learns none of them are real (oddly enough, in the manga he gets over it in two panels), and even the Major gets hit with it in Ghost in the Shell: Arise, carrying a photo of a woman she thinks raised her. Oddly, in the first example, the photo is technically telling the truth, but the man looking at it sees a lie - the man looks at the photo and sees himself and his family. Everyone else sees him standing alone.