The reality effect refers to the use of extreme detail to create an image (whether written, spoken, or made visual) that attests to an eye-witness account, and by extension, that what is being described is a truthful rendition. It is a tactic that may be used to distract a viewer from a subtext that is present by hyper-detailed description or rendition. I would argue that the reality effect can still be put to use in photography, even though what is pictured is typically thought to be already “reality.”
In the photograph of a crime scene above, we recognize that someone has been killed and that there is a crowd of people gathered to find out what has happened. A photograph like this could be called an index because it serves as proof that these individuals were in this position relative to the photographer when the shutter was fired. The people were standing on a street, they were exposed to a bright light, and their images were recorded on film. Some would argue that the very nature of the photographic process means that what is recorded is truthful. This may be partially accurate, in that a photograph records what is in front of the camera at the moment of exposure, therefore we know that these individuals were in these positions. However, the photograph cannot reveal absolute truth because it is not an autonomous or objective. It is always mediated and made by the photographer.
When looking at Weegee’s photograph, the viewer may get caught up looking at the expressions on the faces in the crowd, or wondering what befell him the dead man whose shoes are the only thing we can see. Maybe the theater marquee draws our attention in an attempt to locate the scene of the crime, or the irony of a dead body under the words advertising the “Joy of Living”. These are all functions of the reality effect that speaks to the perceived “truthfulness” of Weegee’s photograph, that he was there and witnessed this moment. Perhaps, however, the detailed photograph keeps the viewer from asking what happened, who is under the newspapers and how did they come to be there, how quickly the police reacted, and so on. It is easy to get caught up in the overwhelming amount of detail and forget that the photograph is a construction with a message.