issue 185 - July 1988
Peter Stalker argues that
photographs offer a highly
selective view of the world.
The photo on the cover of this month's NI makes me uneasy. The Indian man is pleasant looking, certainly not aggressive and what he is holding is only a camera.
Yet there is a threat, for he is about to take my photograph - a hostile act if the language of photography is anything to go by. His camera is 'loaded' with film. Lenses are attached with a 'bayonet' mechanism. And now he is about to take some 'shots' and 'capture' my image on film.
I'm not sure I want to be shot, or even captured, in this way. For a start I have no idea who this person is. What right does he have to take my picture? What right does he have to use a camera at all? The instrument looks entirely out of place in his hands. This photograph raises for me a whole series of tricky issues - technical, social and racial - that I find difficult to resolve.1
You'd think we'd no longer be sensitive to such things. Human beings have been photographing each other for the last 150 years. Snapshots are a commonplace of daily life; around two billion are taken each year.2 And the mass media are filled with photographic images which we absorb without a second thought - usually without even a first one.
On the other hand there are people who spend their working lives thinking about such things - who take the time to analyze just what photographs mean and how we react to them. Photography is indeed a happy hunting ground for communications theorists. And there is a whole abstract science of 'semiology' with which you can confuse yourself if you are so inclined.
If you are not, the safest and most solid ground on which to start is with the camera itself. You can consider it as just a piece of technology: another tool which offers us greater control over the world. Fleeting moments can be snatched from the confusion and chaos all around to be enjoyed and admired at leisure. Cameras have become so simple and relatively cheap to use that this freezing of time is a very democratic option available to almost all consumers in Western countries.
But as with all such technologies there is a hidden cost: while intensifying one human experience they can simultaneously displace others. Jet aircraft, for example, whisk us around the world in a matter of hours but cut us off from the experience of progressive travel. Recorded music offers endless listening pleasure but excludes the spontaneity of live performance. And photography too intensifies our vision of certain aspects of our lives while excluding others from the viewfinder.
This is evident even in the family photo album. Everyone smiles their way through birthday parties, marriages, holidays and Christmas presents. But pleasant as such snapshots might be, they offer a slanted and partial view of our lives. There are few images of arguments or fights. There are no battered babies on the sheepskin rugs. Divorces and funerals go unrecorded. The technology of photography permits, indeed requires, selectivity. And the conventional selection amplifies nostalgia and keeps a record of life which relegates unpleasantness to the uncertainty and dimness of memory.
So photography is not just preservative but also conservative. It helps keep us happy with our lot. Why bother to change things when we are all leading such jolly lives? True there are professional photographers who try to use photos to report on social issues and campaign for political change. Their stark (and often very beautiful) pictures of harsh living and working conditions can be powerful documents. But this is a highly exceptional use. The amateur snapper is not encouraged by Kodak or Agfa or Pentax to record much more than family celebrations. Their glossy ads do not suggest we cover the humdrum routine of daily working life, and certainly not its disasters.
Snapshot photography as an ally of the status quo might seem an exaggeration. But imagine what would happen if you regularly showed up with a camera at work. Photography would no longer seem so natural and harmless. Your superiors would want to know exactly why you were taking pictures. What are you going to use the pictures for? Will they be published? The harmless Instamatic might now be suspected as a weapon of subversion. The question 'Can I take your picture?' no longer seems so innocent.
Our colourful collection of snapshots builds up into almost an 'official version' of our lives. It is odd that this is exactly the way that that a totalitarian state would have us see ourselves. Yet within democratic societies we seem freely to produce it on our own.
The camera as a tool which directs and shapes our lives is most evident when we go on holiday. Then the shutters click with a vengeance. Everyone wants a record of what they hope will be a happy experience. Here too there is selectivity at work - no shots of the busy road the children had to cross to get to the beach, for example.
But beyond selectivity there is an even more powerful intervention, for we use a camera not just to record life but also to change it. Most of us take vacations to enjoy a refreshing and different experience - particularly if we have the money or the time to travel to developing countries like Morocco or India or Mexico. But while we might crave such diversity we are uncertain how to cope with it, so we often shield ourselves with cameras - ostensibly to take souvenir shots, but also to maintain a distance from the alien environment
No need to talk to the colourfully dressed woman in the marketplace if you can study her through the viewfinder. No need to read the inscription on the statue when you can snap it up for future consumption.
And to some extent we even use the camera to take possession of the people and places we encounter. Full value will not have been derived from anything we come across until it has been captured in our own camera. No matter that the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal has been photographed a million times before. In this context 'taking' a picture acquires a whole new meaning. It is an acquisitive act. Small wonder that those who are frequent subjects of the tourist lens are nowadays apt to ask for payment.
But while most of us are producers of pictures at one time or another, it is as consumers that we are most influenced by photography. From magazines and newspapers, from advertisements and glossy brochures, our eyes are assailed by hundreds of images each day. And if the photographs which we ourselves take offer a skewed and partial view of the world then what can we expect of the pictures which other people take for us?
Many of the images in the NI and other magazines and newspapers are there for reasons of design - they can break up the page and make it more pleasant to read. But they also serve to reassure the reader.
Reassurance comes from the impression that the camera cannot lie. Any report - be it of a famine or a football game - will look more immediate and convincing if it is supported by photographic evidence. There is a lingering doubt always that the writer might have been inventing the material - or giving a very biased view. But the photographer simply records the truth. A photograph adds a certain solidity.
One symptom of the different trust accorded to the written word and the photograph is that readers will usually want to identify the writer of an article. So the author's name will appear prominently, often with some biographical information. The photographer, however, is much more anonymous. She or he is not offering an opinion so their background is not considered important. Their name, if it appears at all, will be printed very small and frequently sideways.
Photographers not offering an opinion? The camera cannot lie? Most of us would argue that photographs can indeed be very deceptive and that the camera is quite capable of telling fibs. Strangely, however, we usually behave as though the camera is telling the truth - as though all that photography offers is a transparent window on the world.
Believing one thing and yet behaving as though something else were true is normally the prerogative of the mad or the hypocritical. But you will be relieved to know that this dualistic attitude to photographs is perfectly compatible with both your sanity and your ethical standards. The problem arises because photographs themselves are two different things at once. They are both pictures of reality and symbols of reality.
Take the agricultural scene above. It shows around 25 people picking onions in South Africa. They are obviously quite busy and naturally, with such a large team, are working under supervision. Had we asked a photographic agency for a picture of vegetable-growing they could quite reasonably have supplied it.
But this picture says much more. With the anonymous male dominating the foreground and the small subservient women under him, it also says a lot about the relationship between black and white (and, indeed, men and women) in that unfortunate country. It is still, however, also about vegetable-growing. Try staring at it for a while to see if you can separate the two messages. It's almost impossible. This strange fusion of reality and symbol in one object is the central mystery of photography - and accounts for its great power.
Photographers can use this power to put across a point of view. Just as the photograph lends substance to the written word so the real scene lends support to the symbolic statement. Had the photographer merely asserted verbally that racial oppression in South Africa is offensive it would have been a matter of opinion. Instead here it is before our eyes: it is really happening. But had the photographer on the other hand just stood among the onion pickers and excluded the white man from the picture the same real scene might have put across a quite different message.
The extent to which photographers construct pictures in this way came home to me when I first worked as a journalist in the Third World. Though primarily a writer I also had to take pictures - for the reasons of reassurance I suggested earlier. But quite unconsciously I found myself taking only certain kinds of picture.
If I wanted to illustrate food shortages, for example, I was very careful about what to include in the shot. There was no point, say, in showing families eating - however meagre the meal - otherwise they would not appear hungry. And they should not be smiling at the camera, even though it is quite possible to smile and be hungry at the same time. It was better also to concentrate on children since hungry adults who are listless because tired or anaemic can come across in a photograph as lazy or irresponsible. The most efficient visual shorthand for hunger was of course a child with a distended belly or skeletal appearance. Not only was the child ill but also looked ill.
I was repeating the images of poverty that other photographers used. Not deliberately - just sensing what was likely to be published. It had to be clear and unambiguous. The tiniest extraneous detail could destroy the effect: a watch on the wrist of someone who was supposed to be destitute, for example, raised all sorts of questions that made the photo confusing and therefore less powerful.
I also hunted around for scenes which symbolized my own understanding of the country I was visiting. So if I believed that there were great contrasts between poverty and wealth I might loiter by a particularly garish billboard selling a luxury car and wait for someone in ragged clothes to pass in front of it before I would take a picture. Another well-used image I would try to find was that of street children watching TV through shop windows. Difficult to get - but very effective.
All very harmless you might think. Photographer's license. But there is a real difficulty with this approach. Such conventional views of the Third World can sink so deep into our consciousness that they eventually govern the way we see things. Most people travelling in developing countries, for example, find they see very few skeletal limbs or distended bellies and so conclude there is very little hunger. In fact only a minority of cases of malnutrition display such photogenic symptoms.
There is a further cost to this kind of photo - stereotyping. Nowadays when we see a picture of a skeletal child we see little more than the idea of malnutrition. The human figure is so overpowered by their symbolic significance that she or he almost disappears. Cameras can rapidly transform people into objects. Many photographers and aid agencies, for this reason, refuse to use such pictures, except under very special circumstances.
I have assumed so far that it is the photographer who will determine how an image is to be understood. But the communication process is nothing like so simple. As 'readers' of pictures we all bring our own understandings and prejudices into play. No matter how carefully the photographer might construct a picture, the same image can be construed by different people in different ways.
Take the picture above of the young mother and child. I would argue that to Western Christian eyes this creates a sympathetic impression, not just because it is a young mother, but also because it fits into the Madonna-and-child image that we have grown up with. People without such a visual background, however, from Muslim or Hindu societies would not have the same reaction. Indeed the 'Madonna' herself, as an Indian, would probably see it in quite a different way.
Having read this far you might get the impression that photographers are engaged in some kind of Machiavellian plot to subvert our understanding of the world. This is, of course, very far from the truth. Most of the photographers that we feature in this magazine would be only too pleased to see their work being discussed in these terms, rather than merely taken for granted. They would argue, with some justification, that where there is distortion and deception in the use of photographic images it comes not from photographers but from the editors and publications which use pictures out of context
Some photographs carry such clear messages that it is almost impossible to distort their meaning. But the majority are more ambiguous - and subject to the whims of editors. Take the view of the man with the bullock cart on this page. I have offered two alternative captions.
Which is true? I invented both of them before having any idea of what the picture was supposed to be about. Now I see that the caption supplied on the back of the picture refers to modernization of bullock-carts in Chad. But, for all I know, the young man featured in the picture could also have itchy feet. So they could both be true. The longer and harder you look at pictures the more confusing they become.
Before, during and after reading this magazine you are immersed in a ceaseless flow of photographic imagery. Mostly this is an enjoyable experience. But there is also an insidious undercurrent pulling us in undesirable directions.
Resisting this flow is quite a challenge; swimming against the tide is never easy. But it is possible to take a more realistic attitude to photography. There are, for example, community photography projects which offer people the experience of photographing themselves and their surroundings in ways which illuminate their lives rather than diminish them. Such programmes are few and far between. But if we use a camera regularly to take family snaps we can do much the same thing ourselves by trying to record a more comprehensive view of daily life - it will certainly make for a more interesting album to look back on in 20 years time.
It is also possible to direct a more critical eye towards the images we wake up with every morning. Analyzing everything that passes in front of us can be an exhausting business - not something to do all day and every day. But it's worthwhile every so often to look slightly askance at the images which confront you. Take, for example, the pictures in this magazine.
1 The picture was supplied by French photographer Claude Sauvageot whose work appears quite often in the NI. We asked him what was going on. Claude had, it seems, been travelling round India for a year covering a series of religious festivals. The same group of holy men or sadhus usually showed up on each occasion and he got to know them. Since he had photographed them so many times they eventually (at the Pushkar Camel Fair suggested that they took a picture of him. He handed over one of his cameras, but was then so struck by the visual effect that he took yet another picture. It is fortunate there were no other cameras around to photograph the pair of them or this hall of mirrors could have stretched on indefinitely.
2 Estimate provided for us by the market research department of Kodak.
This special report appeared in the can i take your picture - the strange world of photography issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.