New Internationalist

You Are A Camera

Issue 115

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BIAS AND THE SOCIAL ORDER[image, unknown] How photographs change their meaning

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You are a camera
A photograph looks as straightforward a piece of communication you could imagine. But what is is that causes a photograph to mean anything at all? Peter Stalker argues that it is the cultural bias in the viewer that lights up the picture in the mind.

[image, unknown] PHOTOGRAPHS are great deceivers. You might think that the process is simple enough — real scenes being passed on by a cameraman to anyone who cares to inspect them. But what happens in fact is almost precisely the reverse. It is the viewer who conjures up the meaning from these odd patches of light and shade. And meanings change from one person to the next.

Take picture A. What do those thousands of dots add up to? They could be a group of small boys waiting for school to open — a reasonable enough conclusion for the Western eye.

But if you live in India, chances are that you will have had something completely different planted in your brain. To the average Indian it will be the poster beneath the children that packs the greater meaning. The four faces — father, mother, son and daughter — are a symbol of India’s family planning programme. And if you recognise that, then the row of boys is transformed into an ironic comment, a reinforcement of the need for family planning.

There is yet another group of viewers — literate Hindi-speakers — who will have built up a more complex image. They will be able to read the slogan alongside the faces: ‘Limiting your family to two or three children will make for a happy home’.

All this while the picture remains the same: eight boys, two windows, a door and a wall with a poster on it. But to different viewers the same picture makes up a different sign.

Photographs are signs in the same way that words, gestures or even clothes are signs. And there is a rapidly-growing branch of sociology called 'semiology' (from the Greek semeion:a sign) which aims at understanding them. Central to the analysis of semiologists is that we do not merely receive signs, we actively read them. We read photographs as we read books, and we all read them from our own perspective — from our own cultural bias.

The peculiar thing about photographs considered as signs is that they do not just represent the thing that they signify; in a strange sense they also appear to be the objects themselves — much more so than paintings — and therefore more undeniably 'true'.

Photo [image, unknown] Photo

Photo [image, unknown] Photo [image, unknown] Photo

If picture A had been a painting, our reading of it would have been different. The conjunction of the children and the poster would have been seen as more artificial, the painting itself more like propaganda.

But the photographer, of course, might have rounded up the children to sit on top of the poster in order to create his effect. Or he might just have spotted them sitting there, realised the significance and chose to take that picture of the street rather than any other. Either way he has ‘encoded’ the image just as he hopes that the readers will decode it. Reality itself plays only a very incidental part.

To consider how reliable pictures are as evidence, the ‘change’ test is usually sobering. The photographer has encoded the Brazilian women in picture B as prostitutes. But change the expression of the ‘housemother’ in front (she doesn’t always look like this) and you will come up with a different sign — a different meaning from the same reality.

Besides offering the reader a chance to construct signs, photographs can also be triggers that set the brain off in uncontrollable directions. Any sign can be used to support a ‘myth’. This is not in the sense of something widely believed but untrue, but, in its more general sense is a set of ideas that we use to understand the world around us.

So the complicit smile of the housemother in picture B may well set the adult male mind off into a prostitution myth — ‘she obviously enjoys it, we’re both of us out for a good time’. In fact this myth is contradicted by the more sombre aspect of the lady behind — whom you may, as a result, find less easy to look at Myths seem almost to suck meaning out of pictures to use for their own ends.

If this happens often enough then the images can degenerate into cliches, so that people in the picture finish up as little more than symbols. The child in picture C is a symbol of famine — and so strong a symbol that he scarcely even appears human. The meaning has been added by the brain so quickly that the child himself has been submerged.

To use human beings as symbols — and especially ones already close to death — you may find distasteful, even for the purpose of raising funds for famine relief. Try the change test here again. Make the child smile — as he might well do to his mother— and see what this does to the symbol.

Strong images do not need to be symbols. Good photographers will, however, select and shape their pictures. Armed with a knowledge of the cultural background of their readers they can point them towards ‘a ‘preferred reading’ of the image. Pictures D and E (these photographs are not included, as we do not have copyright to reproduce them in our electronic archive) use two different techniques, focus and perspective respectively, to highlight one child in a classroom. The New Internationalist might use picture D in an article about children trapped in stifling and inappropriate educational systems. And picture E would be a good illustration if you were arguing that education allows bright individuals to get ahead and escape from poverty. Both images are so well constructed that they scarcely need a caption.

But if you really want to give the viewer a more determined nudge towards the preferred reading you can’t do better than to add a caption to cut down the options. Imagine picture F captioned as:

a) A welcome breather from a hard day herding cattle
or
b) He should be in school, hut there aren’t enough classrooms or teachers.

You get an entirely different meaning from the two captions, but both are authenticated by the ‘reality’ of the picture. Reality is clearly very flexible. In this case both captions could also be true (it is b which is supplied with the picture).

The most interesting pictures are those which make you think while you are building up your image — and have you explore areas that you might not have considered before. And they can do this, as in the cases of D and E even when they have been carefully encoded by the photographers.

Pictures such as G take this process almost to the point of getting you lost during the exploration. To me this is something of a puzzle. The child is innocent enough to want to play with a toy — yet old enough to include a hint of menace in his friendliness. Then again the elastic and scrapwood improvisation of a gun is appealing in itself. I am still trying to read this picture and as a result find it a bit unsettling. But then I am white, middle-class and non-militarist.

How you read it is up to you. One thing is sure: that the power of the picture has nothing much to do with a boy standing on a dusty road. He is waiting for you to make him mean something.


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