What You See is What You Get
Photographs surround us everyday. We know this but can we imagine a time where this wasn’t the main form of communication? Probably for the majority of this generation, we can’t imagine this preexisting time. However the sharing of images is only a recent phenomenon. In this essay I will discuss how this affects our experience as human beings. We will discuss how our perception shapes our interpretation of photographic images and how these images shape our expectations.
The world we live in is experienced and reinterpreted on the belief that photographs are the way we see. Social media outputs like Facebook and Instagram are prime examples of a group of people sharing their experiences through the means of posting images. When another person is viewing these photographs they don’t sit there and contemplate the legitimacy of every image, instead they interpret them as a documentation of one’s experience. Similarly, images of other people and places seen on the internet and hanging on walls affect the way they judge the specific subject matter in the photographs. Since the viewer believes the camera captures reality in a accurate way, they find absolute truth in it. This truth then determines the way we view those things, and therefore how we view the world.
Previously to the camera phone and photographic social media outputs the discussion of photography as a true representation of reality was taken very seriously. There were several debates as to the character traits of a photograph being subjective to the capture. There are still these conversations in various institutions but the world has taken the camera and disregarded any possibility of it not representing truth. In other words photography in its various social-relational modes is one of the primary means through which individuals inhabit, experience and reflect on life events.1 There is a new motivation behind photographing and posting, and that is to construct an idealistic representation of one’s life. There is severe censorship similar to what was and is used in the media on how we respond to war. The first account of this documentation was during the Civil War and now the current war on terrorism. Throughout history there have been cases of censorship in propaganda within the Holocaust through Nazi Germany and then the lack thereof during the Vietnam War. In both of these cases, the reactions were devised by the media and other forms of outsourcing.2 The common belief that each photograph is truth is the very reason it can be used in propaganda. According to John Roberts, the author of Photography and its Violations, the photograph is not a viable witness, but an imposture on those without power. He goes on to argue that photography’s inability to tell an absolute truth should make it only viable in the form of art. A photograph isn’t supposed to represent reality.3 As audience members of this visual world we should be more aware of the subjectivity that is inherently present in every photograph.
As photographers we strive to capture images that are somehow more impactful than our amateur peers. Where do we get this drive to make and to enhance our images? It is simply because what we experience and what we see are two completely different things. “An image contains a story, a narrative, a life of its own, and what we see is influenced by our individual perceptions and perspectives at a given point in time.”4 We bring to a photograph our own personal background that influences our act of photographing. If the photographer is against war he/she will choose to capture images that portray their personal opinion. “...pointing and picking out are essentially active, cognitive categories. As such, they operate on the basis of seeking discriminating and categorizing...indivisible from the photographer.”5 Again John Roberts is arguing the impossibility of photographing with absolute objectivity. We are not documenting what we see, rather similar to a painter, we are reinterpreting what we see and putting it on display. Once we decide to select certain images from our experience, we are again pulling what we want to remember out of the whole of the experience. After all we end up with images that shape an idealistic view of who we are or what we experienced. The people who view the photographs also bring to it everything they have been through, which opens up the photograph to be interpreted differently by each person. In Elizabeth Edwards essay, Photography Changes What We See, Depending on Who’s Looking, she discusses the use of photographs taken of the indigenous people of Torres Strait right off the coast of New Guinea. A zoologist was sent there by Cambridge University with the idea that the people living on this island were not a distinct people group, but were animals. He took several photos and distributed them to the institutions when he got back. He later returned with the previous images and showed the indigenous people the photographs with an anthropological view. “The multiple ways this image was presented and used underscores the fact that the authority of photographs is vested not merely in the image but in a whole series of actions, and in the people who undertake those actions.”6 The photograph alone does not hold all of the information within. The institutions viewing these images saw them as documentation of life on the Torres Strait, but the islanders saw these images projected through light with no previous knowledge of practice of photography. These groups of people reinterpreted the experience of the image in polar opposite ways.
We base our perception of people and places on the way someone has represented them through photographic images. In the 19th century they figured this out with the tourism spike of Niagara Falls. Platt D. Babbitt knew long before anyone else was thinking of it, that photographs of such a wonderful site would not only attract people to his photographs but also to the site itself.7 The circulation of these images created an anticipation of the viewer for something exceptional. In current times, how often are we fooled to believe that a place looks a certain way later to realize that it was only seen that way through the lens of a camera. By photographing something you have the ability to cut out uninteresting or distracting things. You are also able to capture that singular most exciting moment out of the entire day. This is what John Berger likes to call an abyss. “All photographs are of the past, yet in them an instant of the past is arrested so that, unlike a lived past, it can never lead to the present.”8 The photograph is preserving that moment and isolating it. Through this action we are then representing that place through that specific time. For example, if we were to photograph in the woods we would choose the photograph that had the best lighting and movement within the frame. We choose based on our reinterpretation of our experience. Those images are then seen by everyone else and evaluated as truth. The truth then forms an expectation that if we were to go to that same place we would experience the same thing. However, other things stick out to them that were looked over by the previous person and vice versa, the experience of what they see is called their perception. Their perceptions are filtered by memories, personalities and what they are looking for.9 In other words, it is quite improbable to reproduce the same image of the woods by the second photographer.
“The way photography is used today both derives from and confirms the suppression of the social function of subjectivity. Photographs, it is said, tell the truth.”10 We cannot ignore the pure subjectivity of photography like we have been. The photographer cannot remove all choices from the act of photographing. From the moment they pick up the camera they step in front of an unavoidable force that embodies the act of producing. There is always an intention behind it whether or not it represents the truth, it can never be the truth. The truth in itself is hard to capture even through other mediums the inevitable reinterpretation of ourselves finds it way in at any chance it gets.