“Photography cannot record abstract ideas.” – Encyclopaedia Britannica
The use of a photograph determines its meaning. A news photograph with a caption will occur first in the daily newspaper but may be exhibited some time later on the walls of a museum with additional or different information. The news photograph will look as it did originally but instead of being seen as news may, at the later date, be described and consequently seen in terms of history, sociology, or art. Susan Sontag’s greatest insight in On Photography is calling attention to use: “As Wittgenstein argued for words, that the meaning is the use – so for each photograph.” If use determines the meaning of photographs, no single meaning is absolute. If Walker Evans’s photographs are descriptive, Aaron Siskind’s are abstract. Historically, the difference between these two modes of vision has been described as documentary (descriptive) or pictorial (artistic). To ask whether a photograph is analogical or coded is not a good means of analysis. The important thing is that the photograph possesses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time. From an existential point of view, in the photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.
Take the photographs of specific buildings that provide extremely poor living conditions for tenants or of buildings that could present the problems of slums, for example, that is, unclean, unhealthy living conditions; not bricks and stones and spaces but darkness, shabbiness, and abjection, which could be interpreted as filthy and insanitary conditions. Now the slum owners and the sanitary brigade can willfully see, in the same photographs, contradictory meanings.
Concealed in the question what the picture is of is the question of the photographer’s intention, as one can see in the slum photographs. Material objects transcribed onto paper in the form of the photograph have only the meaning that the interpreter purposefully gives them; he does not account for the fact that the very existence of the photograph argues an intention, and that sometimes the intention of the photographer is the same as that of the interpreter or viewer. They may be the same person. The interpreter is a rhetorical persuader who ruthlessly insists on the accuracy of slanted terms.
To the historian, semiologist, novelist, and sociologist, must be added the moralist. Sontag agrees that the power of photographs is great and also that photographs greatly mislead. Instead of blaming the rhetorical persuader, decoder, and critic, with their ambiguities of language, she blames the photographer. According to her, W. Eugene Smith cruelly made a beautiful photograph out of human deformity caused by mercury poisoning in Minamata:
“The photographs that W. Eugene Smith took in the late 60s in the Japanese fishing village of Minamata, most of whose inhabitants are crippled and slowly dying of mercury poisoning, move us because they document a suffering which arouses our indignation – and distance us because they are superb photographs of Agony, conforming to surrealist standards of beauty.”
The same can be said about images of destitution, senility, bloodshed and casualties that appear visually delightful, and adorn the walls of art galleries and private art collectors’ penthouses and luxury farmhouses. The viewer, from a gallerist to an art buyer, has often been overheard admiring the half tone, the depth of field, the aesthetics and/or the image’s semblance to reality. In other words, a photograph can even make poverty and squalor look beautiful and saleable.
For so many aspiring young photographers, the war-torn conflict zones, the famines and disaster areas, have a draw that is near compulsive. The danger, the adrenalin, the chance of that one picture making the front pages, winning awards, is enough to make them put their lives on the line. Take Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, who both died in a mortar attack in Misrata, Libya, in April 2011. Or, for that matter, Anja Niedringhaus accompanying Kathy Gannon in Afghanistan who lost her life to bullets fired point blank by an Afghan policeman. From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the conflict in Beirut, from Aids in Africa through the civil war in the Balkans, it’s a photograph that can make a difference. “A photojournalist shouldn’t be a voyeur. In the siege of Sarajevo, the people allowed the photojournalists to work because it was the only way in which they would communicate with the world.” The pictures tell the story of tragic humanitarian crises; the children robbed of their childhood.
The personal human character of the photographer is subject to all the descriptive adjectives. To emphasise this is necessary because Sontag’s discussion of the morality of the photographer’s ethical position or action in photographing poses a false choice. She says: “Photographing is essentially an act of nonintervention.” When taking a picture, particularly an action news photograph, the photographer is not altering or entering the conditions of the photograph.
In most cases, the photographer is not choosing between a photograph and a life. The choice is not between intervention and nonintervention but between photographing and not photographing, if, in a situation where a photographer is present, not photographing might seem the ethical decision. Some photographers have walked away from the horrors they saw without taking pictures. Others have taken pictures and documented the horrors. When the two Pakistani brothers were being tortured to death in broad daylight in Sialkot, the spectators equipped with cellphones and cameras remained busy recording and photographing the brutal incident instead of stepping forward to save their lives!
Intervention is not feasible and probably not useful for professional photographers in most of the extraordinary situations they encounter – not useful for the victims as well as not useful in the event. A photographer who intervened might well become one of the victims, and although the photographer might suffer or die with a consequently clear conscience, a private conviction is no help for other victims, whereas a picture might have public effect. This is not to say that intervention is always either impossible or infeasible, only that it should form no part of the role of photographer.
In real life, in immediate situations, distinctions become blurred. Interventions occur in non-life threatening situations to heighten the emotional effect of the picture. Such possible interventions are conventions of photographic practice. It is the responsibility of the viewer to interpret a photograph with the sophistication acquired through knowing how intervention of this kind might have occurred. Take the Abu Ghraib pictures, for instance. Are they for real?
Take, for instance, the notorious “thumbs up” photo of a smiling female MP, bending over the corpse of an Iraqi prisoner. The Abu Ghraib shots differ from earlier war images not because they are digital but because, being digital, they could be transmitted around the world outside of any journalistic process of editing and review like an epidemic, and outside of any governmental censorship regulations. The wonder is no one questioned their veracity, given that they are such obviously posed pictures, constructed for the camera.
One likes to believe, however naively, that camera images are bound to telling the truth. Truth telling may be an ethic, adopted by photojournalists as a code of behavior, but experience shows us that it is not embedded in the medium like silver bromide in film. Artistic practice – consider Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, Cindy Sherman – has for decades taken the ambiguities of photographic veracity as its subject in myriad ways.
Yet as much as seeing may be constructed by believing, believing is also constructed by seeing. It is often said that seeing is believing, but we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. But the Abu Ghraib pictures are striking examples of the opposite; few could have conceived of the mindless barbarism of American forces in Iraq.
The vast photographic catalogue of misery and injustice throughout the world has given everyone a certain familiarity with atrocity, making the horrible seem more ordinary – making it appear familiar, remote, inevitable. Yet the broad response to the 1980s famine in Ethiopia was activated by photographs. Reports of the famine had appeared in newspapers for at least two years, quietly ignored, before the stunning pictures of the gaunt, weary, barefoot men, women and children walking in the dry landscape to an uncertain destination appeared in newspapers. Money and supplies, governmental and private, poured into Ethiopia. The point is that in 1984-85 pictures of starving people aroused strong emotions and generous responses when the bare fact of starvation, unaided by the imagination, had not.
Sontag argues that knowledge entailed by photographs will be knowledge of bargain prices – a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom; as the act of taking pictures is a semblance of appropriation, a semblance of killing, for instance. Appropriation and killing are acts of violence. The perpetrator, to use a police term, is the photographer, the victim the scene or person photographed. If perpetrator and victim are the first two terms, the third term, neutrally the spectator but in this case the witness, must also be a victim, because he is deluded. If knowledge is a high value, semblance of knowledge is deception.
The argument may lead to the conclusion that Cindy Sherman, who takes photographs of herself in costumes and poses parodying movie stills and various other advertising images recognisable because of their prevalence, is undermining the very distinction between original and copy, and thus exposing the dependence of copy on original.
Photography today is a fractured culture, or perhaps a medium at a transformative point. The transformation has to do with the apparatus of technologies, institutions and artistic practices to which photography belongs. Beginning with its advent in 1839, the photographic medium not only modified our habits of perception but also offered a model of dissemination that revolutionised all aspects of culture. By the early 1920s, the mass-media explosion of photographic images led artists to experiment with montage, serialisation, perceptual rupture and dynamic modes of picture construction. Based on appropriation and fragmentation, photomontage marked a conceptual shift in the understanding of what a picture is.
In recent years, with the increasing turn from analog to digital, photography’s potential for constructing, archiving and engaging with meaning in the world has become more textured and complex in its range of representational renderings. Expanding the processes of making pictures, contemporary artists recognise photography to be a porous medium with fluid borders. Their pictures – whether shot in the real world, grabbed from the screen, digitally manipulated and edited, constructed in the studio, or culled from pop culture and advertising – constantly shift contexts.
In February 1982, the cover of National Geographic presented two Egyptian pyramids repositioned to fit the vertical format of the magazine. For a publication whose century-long mission was to provide excellence in reporting, photography and map-making, to electronically tinker with reality heralded the beginning of a new era. Also in the same year, the personal computer was named by Time Magazine as “The Man of the Year.”
One of the debates about photography that have been going on since its invention is its relationship to the real. In the 1960s, film critic Andre Bazin wrote that photography “…does not create eternity as art does, it embalms time….” In 1981, theorist, philosopher, and culture critic Roland Barthes asserted, “Reference is the founding order of photography.” A common fear about digital photography is that it corrupts or threatens photography’s standing as the principal medium of resemblance in the modern world. If we can alter any scene or create new realities from disparate parts, how can we trust what we see? And yet, accurately depicted reality has not always been the ruling principal of photography.
Since the medium’s beginnings, practitioners have altered, collaged, and appropriated photographs, sometimes to better mimic the natural world, other times for aesthetic or narrative effect. Countless artists have combined negatives. In The Two Ways of Life, Swedish-born photographer Oscar Rejlander depicted virtue and sin in a panoramic image made up of 32 glass plate negatives of subjects photographed at different distances according to the desired scale of the final composition. Add to that various other photographers’ oeuvre, from Philippe Halsman’s Dali Atomicus (1948) – made in 28 attempts – to Sandy Skoglund’s virtual tableaux vivants, from Sushanta Banerjee’s photo-narratives to Aftab Ahmed’s Partially Solarised prints.
In 1888, George Eastman introduced the Kodak # 1 Box Camera – a compact and relatively inexpensive device that was preloaded with film. “You push the button, we do the rest,” was the promise Kodak made to customers in the first appeal to consumers to consider photography as a user-friendly, accessible medium to all. The popular craze for photography that followed was led by people who made pictures of family and friends – on the beach, in cars, and in the backyard at home. They tilted the camera up, down, and to the side, often unwittingly cutting off the tops of peoples’ heads or omitting important details. Such photographic ‘mistakes’ revealed new subjects and new forms, forever altering the way artists and the public considered photographic representation. They also ushered in a new genre of photography, the anonymous snapshot. Can it be equated with the ‘selfie’ and cell-phone photography of today’s digital age?
Some pictures from the printed page served as raw material for early twentieth century Cubist, Dada, and Surrealist collages that challenged authorship and authenticity of art and its pictorial tradition. In 1947, the Polaroid Corporation announced the invention of the one-step process for producing a finished photograph. Polaroid cameras and film gave rapid results. Moreover, with instant imaging a photographer could share pictures with a subject on the spot, and offer a photograph to take away, which opened the door to a joint authorship not previously possible. By the time cameras in cell phones allowed users to instantly capture, store, and send pictures within the blink of an eye, the appetite for instant imagery had grown to be voraciously widespread. If Robert Rauschenberg’s and Robert Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids can be considered art, why can’t a digitally-manipulated cell phone image be regarded as ‘art’?
Pictures are not still anymore: they’re constantly moving and forever changing. The sheer quantity and accessibility of digital images has neutralised the personal, particular, individual, and transformed the local into the impersonal, abstract, collective and global. All images become unassignable and anonymous in this unlimited exchange of visual information, and function as a collective visual index of data that represent us – a constantly changing and spontaneous auto-portrait. The index has shifted from visually descriptive truth to accumulative visual data.
For better or worse, serious photography can no longer be considered apart from its target audience: the art world. The photographs from the 1960s that mean the most to us now were made with little expectation of being seen in museums or galleries, with even less hope of any works being sold. Despite the loss of a certain freedom possible when the market paid no attention to the most profound work of the day, it’s hard to harbor any nostalgia for a time when artists like Diane Arbus lived in penury. In every sense of the word, ours is an electric era for photography, and investigating the nature of photographic description seems to be the dominant mode. From today’s perspective, of course, the analog days were blissfully innocent days. One can shudder with horror when informed that today’s Facebook users upload around 200 million photos a day – 6 billion a month – with the count steadily rising. And we’re told, all such web-based photos will be automatically archived, to live on forever somewhere in the cloud. This is the historic context – photography’s rapid evolution into a complete digital, web-based medium – with which the next generation of artists and photographers must contend.
Aasim Akhtar is a visual artist, writer and curator. He lives and teaches in Islamabad.
Believing is Seeing
“Photography cannot record abstract ideas.” – Encyclopaedia Britannica