We tend to read things into pictures that aren’t really there, and we then criticize either their makers, those depicted, or the context in which they can be found for their flaws, without considering our own role. However valid that criticism might be, unless it explicitly is aware of and acknowledges its own position, in other words where it is coming from as in: what assumptions are being made, what things are being taken for granted, what is being projected — unless any of this is being considered criticism will simply fall short.
We all cling to our belief systems, to the many positions we hold dear, the many things we believe in — our personal ideology. It is very hard to look at a photograph without bringing it to the table, and we consider what is in front of our eyes using this very specific angle. This is, after all, what it means to be human. We have opinions.
Photographs are a lot less than what we make them to be. They are tokens of the world, taken from the world in some way by possibly someone else. They deceive because they exclude and frame and in general do all those things that photographs do. At the same time, they are truthful to what they show, however much or little we personally might agree with that truth (there is no such thing as The Truth, unless you want to engage in metaphysics or religion).
Unlike paintings or most other forms of art (let’s assume that photography is a form of art, which it sometimes, but certainly not always, is) photographs tend not to give away their makers’ choices, certainly not given how we view them (we now have become used to seeing even heavily “filtered” images on photography-sharing apps simply as photographs). There are no brush strokes, no surfaces. Quite like performances, most photographs now appear briefly, to be then transferred to the realm of memory. Unlike performance, however, digital photographs can be easily re-seen (provided they can be located, which is not necessarily a given).
Thus in form, photographs have come to resemble our own lives, our own seeing the world. I went to a baseball game a few days ago, and now that game and most things around it have become memories. I have a few photographs on my smartphone, and they remind me of my experiences, given they look somewhat like what I saw (my eyes don’t have wide-angle lenses, though). Through these photographs — and other mental images that I am convinced I have proper access to — I can connect my self today with that day’s. But unlike in those photographs, my own mental images also vividly recall being recall being stuck in traffic for a while, or listening to a ten-year old boy who just wouldn’t stop talking all day long.
These photographs on my phone ground the experience of going to the baseball game for me, because they provide visual anchors, even though they are also flawed. For example, the netting in front of the section I was seated in has now been transformed into a strange visual interference pattern on the screen. But the grounding is not based on anything these photographs are or do, it’s based on what I want.
And my viewing of these photographs now is also based on what I believe in. That large, somewhat cavernous space, with thousands of spectators and those men in their strange looking uniforms who mostly unsuccessfully tried to hit a little ball — all of that has been transformed into something very different, something that I not only view trying to recall that particular day, but also with my writer’s mind, with my foreigner’s mind (because even after 17 years in this country, many of its habits are still foreign to me).
I can’t look at these photographs without having own ideology interfere.
None of us can. But this need not be a problem. In fact, of all forms of art (see previous disclaimer), photography is the one that allows its viewers to identify their own biases and stereotypes and prejudices and dear beliefs a lot more easily than any of the others, simply because it’s so deceptive. Even though it isn’t, it looks like the world, the world we would see. Usually, it’s not.
I feel that this aspect of photography is not only the most overlooked, it’s also the most precious. I have argued in the past that photography is mostly a social activity, where the taking of a photograph and the subsequent sharing have now clearly become more important than the photograph itself. I still firmly believe that’s true. That is how photography matters for the makers.
For viewers, photography matters in much the same way — it provides access to something someone else wants us to see. We get to connect with someone. But we can’t connect without all those mental filters I discussed earlier. So photography can allow us to examine those filters. In fact, in certain contexts it should force us to examine those filters, because they, and not what’s in the picture or who took it or where it’s shown, tell us about what we could, maybe should do.
All we’d need to do is to first ask whether what we’re talking about when we discuss a picture actually is depicted, literally depicted therein. If it’s not in the picture, which often is the case, then we need to ask ourselves how it ended up in it for us. What made us read this into the picture? What knowledge or assumptions or stereotype or belief caused us to see what is not actually shown? And then comes the crucial last step, the one that offers us the most, where we can ask ourselves what this all says about ourselves. What does it mean that we see these things that aren’t there?
Note that such a way to approach to photographs does not necessarily negate all those conclusions we come to when we look at pictures. That’s not really the point. But it might negate or put into doubt some of the certainty we had concerning some pictures, and that’s really the point.
There are obvious cases where we gain so much by being visually more literate, where being able to understand why we see things in pictures that aren’t really there helps us. Photography used in advertizing of course is mostly a massive lie. But it’s a lie made with us in minds. It wouldn’t work if it didn’t have a hook inside us.
To some degree, the same is true when we look at news photography. Here, of course, the stakes can be higher, and I’m sure many news photographers would vehemently fight my assertion. But if you look at how formulaic and cliched large parts of photojournalism are, there needn’t even really be a debate. Those photographs are made for us and not for those depicted, to get us moving (or not) in some ways. None of that would be attempted in these particular ways because of the hooks we have so readily available (for example, part of our collective Western ideology is that in public we profess to care about misery or suffering).
In this day and age of filter bubbles, I believe we need to force ourselves to engage more deeply with photography for that very reason: not to examine what our ideologies do with pictures is the safest and best way to remain stuck in the bubbles we are so comfortable in. However valid our belief systems might be, they can only weaken from not being challenged time and time again. They are also not permanent. A lot of the things I believed in with a vengeance twenty years ago I now see somewhat differently, or maybe with a more forgiving eye.
We can discuss photography as if we still haven’t moved much past the often very superficial and flawed arguments brought forth by Susan Sontag — much like any piece of criticism, hers are exercises in ideology. But photography itself has evolved and changed in a large variety of ways, and our thinking about it ought to as well.
If there’s ideology in photographs, it’s because we put it there, less so because someone else did.