Some weeks ago, I was exchanging emails with a reader from New Zealand; he threw out an interesting thought which has stuck with me since and definitely bears further examination (and I paraphrase to retain context): Where does the work of a photographer begin and end? Have we partially taken over the job of philosophers to interpret the world?
On further contemplation, there’s a lot more to this simple postulation that meets the eye. One of the things I’ve always believed (and openly stuck by) is that photography is art, and art is subjective; there are no absolute rights and wrongs. Here we draw the first parallel with philosophy: it isn’t science precisely because there’s no real right or wrong; heck, defining right and wrong is a topic unto itself. The real point is that both are interpretative, and biased by the point of view of the interpreter. The photographer captures – or tries to capture – what he sees, with the ultimate aim of conveying a certain image to the end viewer. Depending on the skill of the photographer, the image that gets conveyed may be no more than a limited representation of the scene, or it may be a heavily ‘controlled’ view in which the contents of the image are manipulated or carefully selected to force the intended audience to come to a premeditated conclusion. Very few images present things as-is and in an objective fashion – this is what there is and no more, no less – I’d in fact argue that it’s damn near impossible to do, because the very act of framing means that things have to be consciously left out of the final image whose inclusion or exclusion would affect the interpretation of the scene.
I’m not sure philosopher has even been the career of a sort which generates a decent survivable income without having to resort to academia; I suppose in that sense, photography is a shallow step up (though even that’s eroding these days). In the fledgling days of the scientific method, the role of philosopher was to serve as a logical/ interpretative bridge between religion – the explanation for things beyond the limited science of the day – and the empirical observables of daily life; they also wore the hats of historian, chronicler and observer. Their hypotheses simplified complex observable phenomena – say, volcanoes – down into bite size, easily-digestible chunks for the general population who had no education or inclination to take things at anything other than face value. They gave us Atlantis!
Through the dark arts of compositing, Photoshop and large production budgets, today’s photographers give us the same; either we produce Atlantis in a quest to sell some mermaid-themed perfume, an adventure ride, or perhaps continue pushing the sensible boundaries of fairytale pre-wedding shoots. What both have in common is that they’re a fabricated interpretation of reality, aimed squarely at the consumer masses. Perhaps there is a subtle difference: whereas the role of the philosophers was to create a palatable explanation because reality would have been too complex, the photographer is biased towards creating an escape from reality that’s by choice rather than necessity.
The same is true even for topics that perhaps shouldn’t be treated quite so lightly – specifically anything to do with documentary, reportage or news. It’s well known that our view of events and the world is clouded by what the media agencies or governments want us to see; there is no such thing as absolute truth because the points of view are always relative. More worrying is that society today is too busy trying to make money or enjoy the next sensation that by and large we have outsourced the interpretation of reality to third parties; we are now merely passive viewers. This takes the form of social media, online portals, news, popular entertainment, print media and magazines…most of which pander to sensationalism to gain higher exposure (hell, even photography ‘reviewers’ and websites are guilty of this), and all of which rely on the images of photographers or videographers to illustrate the point. There’s an old and very accurate adage here: if enough people believe something, then it might as well be true.
To be continued.
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