Colin Pantall on what photographs tell us


General Photography

Colin Pantall has a great post up about two somewhat recent news photographs that made a bit of a splash. In both cases, the public reacted aghast at what they saw. Colin writes (my emphasis): “The idea is that one should look a certain way in the face of tragedy, part of the simplistic narrative that is expected of people when they are part of a photograph - a simplistic narrative that does not have an equivalence in writing. Here it is easy to explain the contrast between the glorious sky and the casual dress, the trappings of the picnic and the relaxed poses. These are all allowed to happen, but when it comes to a photograph, God forbid if anybody is caught doing anything that lies outside a very narrow band of expected responses.” (more)

Approaching photographs from that angle is, I think, what we really should be doing. We all like to think that the photographer’s intention inform the image and that when we look at a photograph we can see those intentions. But if we ignore the simple fact that we have no way of knowing what the photographer’s intentions were (How would we know? All we have is a photograph), especially in a news context, we don’t just look at photographs, we look at them with our own sets of expectations (as Colin notes) and biases.

We often see in photographs not what they show, but instead what we want to see. Frank Rich wanted to see callous Americans in Hopeker’s 911 photo: Bingo. One of the people in the image, of course, wanted to see something different, and of course you can read that into the photo, too. This is the very simple reason why politicians are so eager to be in control of photographs taken of them - they want the photographs to reflect their image. This doesn’t always work, of course, since people see in images not what others want them to see, but what they want to see.

If any of the things we see don’t suit us, guess who is to blame? It’s never us, it’s always the photographer. It’s never the fact that we want to see certain things, it’s always that someone else is not showing us what we want to see. There is “manipulation” going on, there is “deception” - you know the game. So when, for example, Michelle Bachmann looks a certain way in a photograph then the photographer is to blame (if you’re a fan of Bachmann), or the photo essentially just shows us what we know already (if you think Bachmann is nuts).

Needless to say, with such an overly simplistic approach we are essentially prisoners of our own making. We don’t really understand photography. But if it doesn’t show us what we want to see then photography is to blame even though we are manipulating and deceiving ourselves, using photographs as tools to do that.

The only way out of this predicament is to finally understand what photographs do and how they do it. This is a most important goal, especially in a news context. Unfortunately, having seen so many pseudo-scandals and debates not going anywhere I’m not too optimistic these days that we’re getting any closer to it.