29 September 2005

A hidden agenda?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, could photographs create a language of their own?

Photographic images are everywhere: from photo albums at home, to ads in newspapers and magazines, to posters and display material at stores. They are on our passport and our driving license. They are on television and the Internet.

A photo is essentially a record of a (past) reality and is often stored for its remembrance value. Sometimes, even as evidence. It’s a representation of a thought, an idea, a happening, or an event. Whether you look at it as a mere objective record, or subjectively from a photographer’s point of view, you can’t deny the fact that a photograph carries meaning. It speaks to us – often in a personalised manner – and contributes significantly to our perceptions of the people and the world around us.

Let’s face it: photographs are an essential part of our culture. Most of us have produced – or continue to produce even now – photos of our own, with our own cameras.

But, what of the act of photography? Why do we take photographs? Why do we look at photographs? Somewhere deep in our minds, is there a hidden agenda in our love for photography?

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but I can recommend an excellent essay on this very subject by Batia Boe Stolar called “To Shoot or Not To Shoot: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Photography.”

Ms Stolar starts off with ethics in photography, quoting from Susan Sontag, giving a detailed perspective to some of the issues I’ve written about in my earlier posts this month. Her focus being, the "social and historical value" of photographic images, which is possibly the most important issue in photojournalism.

When dealing with aesthetics, Ms Stolar’s topic becomes a little complicated because she still doesn’t leave the issue of ethics behind. As she talks about Walker Evans, James Agee, Diane Arbus and more, she quotes from Roland Barthes, mentioning "essence and sensibility" as critical ingredients in photography. And, I agree.

Incorporating aesthetics and ethics in the same frame is possibly the aim of every photographer. But, when Ms Stolar questions aesthetic ideals, metaphors and the "I" in photography, it all becomes rather mind-boggling.

No comments: