“Language is a direct medium and communicates meaning and intention straight. A photograph, on the other hand, is subject to the viewer’s memory, aesthetics, and feelings — all of which affect how the photograph is seen. It isn’t conclusive the way language is. But that’s what makes photography interesting. There’s no point in taking photographs that use language in an expository way. Taking photographs for the purpose of language is for the most part meaningless.”

-Daido Moriyama

 

wes_dr-albert-schweitzer

© W. Eugene Smith/Magnum Photos. Eugene Smith composited two separate negatives to make this image – a negative of the hand and saw in the foreground & the portrait of Dr. Schweitzer in the background.

I avoid universal statements – usually sentences with words or phrases like ‘always’, ‘all’, ‘for all time’, ‘never’, ‘none’, ‘it is always the case that…’ etc., as observations or commentary about art and life. They tend to be generic, often to the point of meaninglessness, and one can easily think often of counter examples without much effort.

Generic statements tend be thought of as profound, almost divine knowledge, gifted from on high, when in reality the opposite is true. These types of statements frequently are plucked from their respective author’s contexts, slapped into positive affirmations on Facebook or into the chapter headings in pseudo science self-help books. It is the lack of specificity, in this type of ‘wisdom’, that deflates them and exposes their falisy.

There is an old adage, that I am sure most of you have heard before, it usually goes something like this: “there are no rules in photography… or art… or… (Fill in the blank),” which is usually told to students when they first begin ‘art-making’. This expression is nice and convenient, but hopelessly vague, another universal statement and utterly false.

Certainly, there are rules in photography. There is a whole history of photography that has a lineage. Human beings have learned from doing, and creating – not only photographs, but also art in general – for millennia. Along the way, we picked up some useful ways of expressing and communicating knowledge, emotions, and human experience. Some of the rules are shit; some of them are quite useful. I say pick and choose, but any serious photographer would do well to learn from people who have done it well, and ask why?

Image © Paolo PellegrinThe mother of a child killed during an IDF's incursion is seen mourning in Jenin, Palestine 2002.

Image © Paolo Pellegrin
The mother of a child killed during an IDF’s incursion is seen mourning in Jenin, Palestine 2002.

“I’m more interested in a photography that is ‘unfinished’ – a photography that is suggestive and can trigger a conversation or dialogue. There are pictures that are closed, finished, to which there is no way in. ”

-Paolo Pellegrin

I do think artists and critics can make profound and meaningful observations. Sometimes certain works of art or commentary, hit the nail on the head. They get it right. They “resonate” culturally, so to speak.

What a good photograph does, for me at least, is provide a little bit of clarity.

Certain photographs, when I have seen them for the first time, have quite dramically changed the way I see the world. (I am using the word “see” not only in visual terms, but also in psychological, intellectual, and emotional ones). They informed my experiences as human being and continue to do so.

I do not mean that with all photographs everything suddenly becomes clear, or that every good photograph answers a question. Many good photographs, especially those in the photojournalist tradition, are successes precisely because they ask questions. I would go so far to say that the best photojournalist photos ask questions. The majority of the rest are clichés, entertainment (of the worst kind), or are so mind-numbingly boring as to merit apathy.

When Moriyama says; “There’s no point in taking photographs that use language in an expository way. Taking photographs for the purpose of language is for the most part meaningless.”

I think he is right.

Image © Robert Capa

Image © Robert Capa

“In a war, you must hate somebody or love somebody; you must have a position or you cannot stand what goes on”

“The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda.”

-Robert Capa

Time and time again, I have heard the journalist ‘party-line’, squawking about documentary photography’s power, how they are “witnesses” to history, how documentary photographs show life as it is; they are objective, after all… right? When you start working for a major newspaper you actually have to sign a contract that says you will not be involved in activities, political and otherwise, that will compromise your objectivity.

Well I do not know about you, but I choose where to stand, what to put in the frame, and when to push the button. We do not experience life as a series of frozen images in little 2:3 ratio boxes. The ‘nature’ of the still frame is an abstracted view of reality. As a photographer, you are clipping out small crops of your experience.

Anyone who has shot 6 frames a second, or more, can tell you how quickly reality, and the interrupted meaning of a scene can change, from one frame to the next. These sequential frames can have divergent, or in some cases, completely opposite meanings. After, you edit your photographs, or someone else does, you choose which images represent your __________(fill in the blank). Often times the most dramatic photos are the ones that are chosen. For what purpose, and for whom? These are important questions. It is an interpretation.

If you want objectivity perhaps, you should shoot unedited video.


Photography has been inherently tied with a representation of reality. This makes sense given photography’s mechanical development – the ‘receiving’ of light onto a surface, rather than say ‘placing’ of paint onto a surface. Many photographers have challenged these inherited associations of representation, Moriyama being one of the best (see his book Sayonara (Farewell) Photography).

Image © Daido MoriyamaFrom the book 'Farewell Photography'

Image © Daido Moriyama
From the book ‘Farewell Photography’

Without a doubt, photography can be used as evidence, or as documentation, of specific events and times. This can be of critical importance if you want to prove whether something happened or did not. However, this seems a rather low bar to set in the total evaluation, and potential possibilities of photo making and it’s associated cultural imports. In addition, this form of ‘documentation’ proves to be rather unreliable, see Errol Morris’ series on Fenton’s cannonball photographs, or read ‘Propaganda’ by Edward Barnays, to see how the manipulation of time and place can completely change our interpretation of images.

Some would say that photography shows us ‘worlds’ that we have never seen before. There is a kind of novelty in viewing images of other times and cultures, of unfamiliar or exotic things. However, if this is the standard, I am afraid we are caught in a cyclic kind of image making, always searching for that ‘new’ quirky or usual subject. Moreover, really, how many of the stories are original? If I see another ‘famous’ journalist document miners in Africa in the same tired way I might puke.


Image © Damon WintersWinters won third place for feature picture story from Pictures of the Year International  with photographs taken using the Hipstamatic app.

Image © Damon Winters. Winters won third place for feature picture story from Pictures of the Year International with photographs taken using the Hipstamatic app.

“Digital manipulation, manufactured photo illustrations, double exposures, added masksbordersbackgrounds, text, or other artistic effects are not allowed.

-From the POYi entry guidelines 2012 (bold ephasis added)

Photography can be art. It is precisely the symbolic, and metaphorical possibilities of the photograph that give it potential and power. As much as the photographer’s choices: what to shoot, how to shoot it, where to present it – act as ‘guide’, the viewer brings to bear a whole host of associations, all of which change how the photograph is interrupted, and ultimately what a photograph is. The fact that it is fixed imbues it with a stationary power. The image is unchanging. This can provide the opportunity not only for the image to symbolically represent life, but also for an image to become a symbol unto itself. A photograph allows us to return; to a place, a feeling, or a moment in time, again and again. A photograph can become a form of individual recollection or cultural currency.

With a little imagination, one can look at a photograph, even of a complete stranger (after all aren’t most photographs of strangers, even those of loved ones?), devoid of all context, and associate with it, relating to the subject. Look how powerful and convincing the imagery in advertising can be. So given the ‘objectivity’ of photography, the photograph, or the photographer, how can this be? Part of finding out what a photograph means, is looking to how it is used.

Recently a picture editor from a major magazine asked me how I processed my color images. The photos in question were for a breaking news story. They decided not to publish my images. I visited their website, and for the same subject matter they had chosen to published instagram photos, heavily filtered with garishly saturated colors. I only share this story, not for argument about “quality,” but to raise questions. How can newspapers publish Hipstamatic photographs on their front page, yet make the photographers sign an objectivity contract?


A painting by Giovanni Bellini - 'Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna and St John (Pietà)

A painting by Giovanni Bellini – ‘Dead Christ Supported by the Madonna and St John (Pietà)

Image © Samuel ArandaFatima al-Qaws cradles her son Zayed (18), who is suffering from the effects of tear gas after participating in a street demonstration, in Sanaa, Yemen, on 15 October.This image won WORLD PRESS PHOTO OF THE YEAR 2011.

Image © Samuel Aranda. Fatima al-Qaws cradles her son Zayed (18), who is suffering from the effects of tear gas after participating in a street demonstration, in Sanaa, Yemen, on 15 October. This image won WORLD PRESS PHOTO OF THE YEAR 2011.

To create photographs that reflect the structure of the world in all of its complexity, multi-faceted interpretability, and layers, we must dismantle the lie of objectivity. This is in no way a promotion of deliberate deception, especially when truth is involved (It is of the highest importance to take photos that are honest). However, truth is different from objectivity, and objectivity in photography is a myth. What happens when you use a flash for example, or a slow shutter speed, or shallow depth of field? Or shoot in black and white?

I think we must think about where photographs have come from, and where they are going. We need to acknowledge that what you take photos of – and the aesthetic choices you make – do not conform to a universal reality of representation. Likewise, photographs are not created solely from mists of a personal experience. Histories and cultures are inherited and shared, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

What are the implications, for example, when a western European photojournalist takes a photograph of a woman in a burka clutching her wounded son? The photo smacks of Christian ideology and western thought, directly referencing the Pieta – Christ being lowered from the cross. Hardly appropriate given the Arab Spring’s thrust toward throwing off the chains of western ideological imperialism and dictatorship. Moreover, let us not forget a little thing called the crusades.

That is not objectivity, that is simply ignorance.