The photographer as philosopher

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Some time ago, I was exchanging emails with a reader who posed 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.

Even though these articles might have differing substance to the images, it’s the images that people are drawn to because they contain information that comes in a much more easily digestible form than words; you can look at an image for a few seconds to understand what’s going on, but you can’t do the same with a two-thousand word article. Our brains are just hardwired that way; predators in the jungle didn’t write essays about why they were dangerous; they just looked scary. This dissonance itself is quite dangerous: an increasingly frequent trend I’ve noticed recently is that the pictures don’t always match the words; whether this is laziness on the part of the editor or lack of choice remains unclear; but there’s definitely a growing disparity betweens what the words say, and what the images say – or at least the impression they give. Logically, one would think that the overall message should be consistent: if you’re going for a particular angle, then the images should support the story; if no suitable images can be found, then the angle and story should be altered slightly so that at least the complete article is self-consistent.

I bet many of you saw the opening image in part one and wondered how on earth it related to the title; it’s an example of the dissonance. I’m even more certain that in a few months, one of three things will happen:
1. You’ll remember the article because of the example dissonance between images and words;
2. You’ll remember the some literal aspect of the sign, or graphic-ness
3. Most likely: you’ll remember neither.

There’s a reason why hard-hitting and impactful articles have strong images that make us uncomfortable: this is what gets attention, it’s what people remember, and it’s certainly going to have a longer-lasting impact than a bunch of words on a page.

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Which image are you more likely to remember: the sign, or the man with the gun? Initial impressions of the first image are literal, but only become layered on closer inspection: the darkness, the implied uncertainty, the silhouette figure, the color red – associated with danger. The second image raises more immediate questions: who is he? Where is it? What’s the context? What’s that black frame on the left of the image? What’s the photographer trying to say with the slight motion blur? Why is he carrying a gun in the first place? One makes you think, one doesn’t. The more your brain has to work to understand an image, the more likely you (or your audience) is to remember it.

Photographers – especially photojournalists – have a responsibility to be judicious and as objective as possible when it comes to illustration of events, especially controversial ones. The problem is that whilst the photographer’s complete body of work from that event might be objective and balanced, he or she almost never has any control over what eventually gets published, let alone any changes to the editorial direction or message that might be made between pre-assignment briefing and print. This means that there’s really only one way to maximize objectivity. Firstly, the photographer has to try to have as netural an observer bias as possible – near impossible, I know – and secondly, each frame has to stand on its own, with a composition that’s strong enough to tell a story without other accompanying text or supporting images. There are different thresholds, of course, for reportage and commercial work.

Putting on my philosopher hat now: it’s the responsibility of the photographer to ensure that the presentation and impression received by the viewer matches his or her intentions. It’s the responsibility of the photojournalist to be as objective as humanly possible. Finally, it’s the responsibility of the viewer to look at things in a detached, objective, questioning way; not just to accept what gets forced in your eyes. Do your own research and make up your own mind; people don’t like to discover they’re being manipulated or controlled. I know I don’t; whilst I generally have strong points of view on most things – especially things photographic – I still welcome objective discourse (leave the personal attacks and ego at the door, please) because I know that a) things are always subjective, and b) I’ll probably be wrong sooner rather than later.

This applies equally to photography that isn’t strictly reportage. Every image is (hopefully) nothing more and nothing less than the photographer’s interpretative view of a small slice of the world; granted, there are limitations on this introduced by clients, lack of technical skill, equipment constraints, etc. Undoubtedly, society’s tolerance for the latitude of interpretation grows wider as the consequences grow smaller: nobody is really going to complain about photoshopped wedding images, or flowers of an inverse color, but you might well find that retouching crime scene evidence or adding and removing people from an image of a country leader being assassinated might be viewed quite differently.

The bottom line is that we should always be prepared to question why, and think of the consequences of our actions/ interpretations – both as a documentary/ observer, as well as an audience. Caring about the why is what makes us human. MT


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  1. I am fascinated by your article. I am a photographer and I agree with you. It is subjective and we always have to choose something to be left out. Asking the story behind a photo is a great start and many forget to do when they consume social media.

  2. What this article is trying to say is that there is a certain Philosophy behind photography. But I think the work of a Philosopher is misunderstood.
    It’s not really there to give a certain world view to the masses. It’s there to ask fundamental questions about our existence. But it’s not always giving an answer.

    Interestingly enough it’s somewhat comparable to mathematics. Both subjects use logic to determine their answers, but math is like it’s own language. The view that there is no right or wrong answer comes from moral questions, which is only one part of Philosophy.

    • There has to be some thinking behind good photography – mere physical representations of an object aren’t enough to make a memorable image. But to what degree this can be successful – especially in light of other considerations such as getting too esoteric for most audiences – is hard to say…

  3. I have to strongly disagree with your underlying assumption that philosophy “… isn’t science precisely because there’s no real right or wrong.” First of all philosophy is science, precisely a formal science like mathematics. Second of all to assume that science is characterized by a clear “right” or “wrong” is also a misconception. If anything science nowadays works with a philosophical concept called “falsifiability” developed by Karl Popper. Third science is always interpretive and biased by the point of view of the interpreter. (see for example T.S. Kuhn)

    • You can disagree, but sorry, merely listing statements aren’t supporting reasons. A science with quantitative measurements isn’t subjective: either quantity or measure A is greater than B, or it isn’t. If the result is in doubt, look to the execution of the experiment. Science might well be falsifiable, but that’s down to the experiment and the premise of experimental conditions.

      • Well a measurement doesn’t tell you anything more then A is greater then B in that measurement. What you need is a theoretic concept, experimental premises and an interpretation of the result. A measurement without these is meaningless. A theoretical concept, experimental premises and interpretation are merely “right or wrong”; they are “interpretative and biased by the point of view of the interpreter.” Have a look a physics, if any discipline deserves to be called science it’s this one. Still theoretic physicists keep postulating theories which cannot be proven by experiment (multiverse theory, simulation theory etc.). But nevertheless they have a very good reason for their thought experiments. Science is so much more then just to measure smth. Another example; mathematics, a formal sciences that does not prove anything execpt that it is consitent within itself. Still crucial for our understanding of the world. The same aplies for philosophy which for example formalized logic (deduction, induction etc) or developed concepts like falsifiability.

        • Okay, this makes more sense – thanks for explaining it. I agree the whole validity is limited by the question asked in the first place – but the specific answer to that question – assuming the experiment is conducted properly – is still objective/quantitative in a way that interpretative philosophy is not…

          • Yes of course there are fundamental difference in how these sciences work. All though I do not like the term “interpretative philosophy” because it suggest a arbitrariness as such that essentially everyone can just postulate what he or she wants and label it “philosophy”. Academic philosophy is a very different of what people usually think it is. It is a formal sciences that almost exclusively relies on logic as its main research tool. It shares much more similarities with mathematics then religion in contrast to most people’s assumption.

            Objectivity is slippery slope though. Academically speaking we only thrive for objectivity but we never reach it. This is exemplified by things like double-blind-tests, peer-review, random sampling etc. The goal is to eliminate bias, emotions and false beliefs as much as possible but this is a scientific method and not objectivity in it’s true sense. Even physics have a very hard time with objectivity; the double-slit experiment for example shows that light behaves like particles or waves depending if it is measured or not. This means that the measurement itself is defining what is to be measured; this is the opposite of objectivity.

            • Hmm…how would you classify personal principles/ approaches then? Is this also not ‘philosophy’?

              If the measurement itself defines what is to be measured, surely this is absolute objectivity since the result can only be determined by the subject?

  4. Nice post. This is a classic issue for discussion and you have updated it to reflect the current impacts of things like social media. When I think about this issue, a few thoughts come to mind. First, I tend to focus less on the concept of “truth” and more on the idea of honesty. Is the photographer being honest within the bounds of their bias and perspective? And is the use of the image honest to what the photographer intended when taking and publishing it? The latter was a big driver for the formation of Magnum Photos and one of my mentors who passed away far too young. He worked as a photojournalist in Texas in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but considered himself an artist by calling and eventually stopped working. He would never let his personal body of work be used for any commercial purposes as he wanted total control over the context of any distribution or presentation of his images. He died in the early days of the internet boom at the turn of the century and often thought the web would be a boon to artists as they could have their work be viewed by large audiences. He was right, but I am not sure if the also saw the potential for the abuses that we are now seeing daily. This is a tough issue to keep alive in the days of not just tools like photoshop, but with the emergence of AI. I suspect the next decade is going to be a wild ride for those who care about things objectivity and the truth. This is why I tend to focus on honesty. There can be multiple truths, we all have inherent biases, and I am sure determining honesty could fall into a gray area, but it still seems a better yardstick when I have to evaluate information.


    • Interesting points. Here’s one thought further on that: what is ‘honest’ in the context of something that is almost entirely subjective perception? Is painted art honest? Can it even be anything other than what we choose to interpret it as? The same applies to photography…I keep having this niggling feeling the viewer/ interpreter is just as complicit in the honesty of perception (or lack of) as its creator.

      • Good points. I do think that an artist can be honest even though their perception is subjective, but that honesty is shaped by their awareness and attitudes towards their subject, for better or for worse. And I do agree that the viewer is complicit in the honesty. All thoughts that do make one pause from time to time before sharing work.


  5. Bill Walter says:

    I find your article very interesting and valid as it relates to photojournalism and to a lesser degree advertising (where you speak of “fabricated interpretation of reality.”) With my personal photography, I do not feel I’ve assumed the role of philosopher in any way. On the question… where does the work of a photographer begin and end? For me, it begins and ends in pleasing myself, and what others might think of my work is of no concern to me. Regarding your 2 photos… The man with the gun I’ll remember for all the reasons you mentioned, plus the question of what battle or war is he fighting and what country or group does he represent, I want to know more. The photo of the sign was viewed, enjoyed and immediately forgotten. A profound and well thought out article, Ming.

    • Thanks!

      Our role begins in observation, continues in interpretation and ends in presentation – all of it ultimately is our viewpoint shaped by our own experiences and biases, but hopefully with enough visual interest and provocation to keep people looking…

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