In her book ‘On Photography’, Sontag explains how photographs have become a grammar, an ethics of seeing, that they are experience captured, and that to photograph something can be like owning a piece of it. This places the viewer of photographs in a distinct relation to the physical world through the power of knowledge. And it is through this power of knowledge that one is able to influence and therefore intervene in the course of humanity. In his book entitled “Media and Modernity” Thompson corroborates this theory to which he refers to as “symbolic power”. Both authors agree that the power of photographs is a pervasive one, and as much as they are subject to interpretation, they are also subject to manipulation on the part of their producers. By analysing how this interaction between the producer and the consumer can have an effect on social life, we can better understand how photographs can exert influence on our perception.
Photography came to be known as an invention by Louis Daguerre, who in turn, based his work on that of his former late working partner, the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce. His early version of exposure known as the ‘Daguerreotype process’ was recognised by France in 1839, and since then, the evolution of photography began to take its course. In subsequent years, countless inventors and scientists contributed to the long history in the technological development of photography, culminating in the household item that is today’s modern camera. All through this time, images were being captured, many of them iconic, such as the first known image of a man standing in the Boulevard du Temple, by Daguerre himself (appendix A), or the image of Abraham Lincoln in his top hat flanked by Allan Pinkerton and General John McClernand in 1862 (appendix B). It was the beginning of a journey to fulfil “a promise inherent in photography since the very beginning: to democratise all experiences by turning them into images” (Sontag 1977: P7). And surely enough, even these early examples have become mediated to the point that they are widely recognised, and through such mediation they can influence our very perception of history.
But the influence that such photographs exert on the viewer will depend on a number of factors since “the development of communication media is, in a fundamental sense, a reworking of the symbolic character of social life”, (Thompson 1995: P11). The first of these factors are embedded in the image itself, through its very composition, and by further enhancements on the part of the photographer through post-processing. Take the image of a poor Indian girl as an example (appendix C), the photograph chosen for distribution (no doubt out of many taken) shows the expression on the subject’s face exactly as the photographer thinks it would best portray despair, her hair and tatty clothes further promote this notion. The natural light in this image creates a dark mood inside her shelter as opposed to the sunnier outdoors; it also creates a very dramatic, mood enhancing lighting effect on her face. The framing further suggests her world in its entirety revolves inside a poor shelter and that the outdoors is something she might long for. Sontag makes reference to this “mirroring of reality” when studying the work produced by the “immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930s” (Sontag 1977: P6). Once the photographer is satisfied with the image captured at source, there is an element of post-processing that can further the producer’s intention, cropping an image, changes to saturation levels, and airbrushing, are some of the techniques that can be used to subliminally re-enforce the desired notion. In the case of the model in an autumn setting (appendix D), airbrushing and colour grading is extensively applied in pursuance of the perfect image, unreal as it may be. The same is true for the second photograph of a model in a mid-close-up shot (appendix E), but this time applying grading to add intrigue and mystique, as well as airbrushing to perfection.
“The possibilities of transforming photographs by digital processing have altered our theoretical perceptions of photography to the extent that we can no longer be certain that the photograph can provide, in any way at all, evidence of states of affairs in a real world” (Wright 1999: P197).
Not that all photographers purposefully manipulate the textual meaning through these practices, but that the education and experiences that form their character might inadvertently interfere in the process through their judgements, when composing the image. As Sontag explains…
“Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience” (Sontag 1977: P6).
After the photograph is produced in its final form, mediation of the image commences. Print media, the internet, and even television and film can all play a fundamental part in the distribution and re-distribution of a photograph, spreading an awareness of the content at an almost global scale. At that point, another influencing factor can surface even after the event has been captured, there is still a possibility of interference through censorship; the image might only see partial distribution or not even see distribution at all according to the interests of the current regime or ruling ideology. China, for example, exerts extreme control over the media in a bid to diffuse symbolic distancing (or the opportunity for consumers to compare their environment with that of foreign regimes). Thompson uses James Lull’s study of the Chinese national broadcasting network to illustrate this notion…
“When people watch international news, for instance, they may pay as much attention to street scenes, housing and clothing as to the commentary that accompanies the pictures from foreign lands” (Thompson 1995: P176).
In his study, Lull interviews one particular viewer from Beijing, who goes on to say “They said nothing is valuable outside China. But when we look at TV programs we can see that the West is not so bad” (Lull 1991: P174).
The same effect occurs with the distribution of media in general, including photographic material.
“Indeed, it can be argued that it is the digital transmission of images rather than the manipulation of the photograph, that will prove to have the greatest influence on photographic practice” (Wright 1991: P204).
On the receiving end, interpretation on the other hand is a key factor as to how a photograph carries meaning. Audiences from a communist state such as China for example, will derive information from a media text according to their circumstances, which would differ significantly from the interpretation afforded to it by an individual originating from a western society. This process, Thompson refers to as “appropriation”, and the differences in the interpretation through this appropriation are determined by the social circumstances the viewer is exposed to, or their “fields of interaction” as conceptualised by Pierre Bourdieu (1979). Life experiences for an individual are very much dependent on their social circumstances, their education, and the regimes that govern their social environment. Take the photograph of a food stall in Beijing for example (appendix F); whilst I’m sure that the image will seem appealing or perhaps even awaken an appetite in a Chinese citizen, one can safely ascertain that the reaction of a Westerner to this very same image will be somewhat different.
These different interpretations of a still image will more importantly, also invoke different sentiments in the viewer according to their “fields of interaction”. Nostalgia, reverie, and associations of a moral nature, are feelings that will form around an image according to our perception. Sontag describes how images can invoke such sentiments using examples such as “the lover’s photograph hidden in a married woman’s wallet, the poster photograph of a rock star tacked up over an adolescent’s bed, the campaign-button image of a politician’s face pinned on a voter’s coat”. It would not be presumptuous to conclude that such images might produce an opposite reaction from an Islamic extremist for example. The opposite is true for western individuals setting their sight on a photograph of the Islamic demonstration held in England (appendix G). Whilst those captured in the photograph would be proud to demonstrate according to their religious beliefs, such an image would only shock and offend in a western, democratic society. But such images that have the ability to shock and invoke admiration at the same time are plentiful in this age of advanced photographic consciousness. This familiarity with controversial subject matter through repetitive exposure and the passage of time are factors that have been proven to dilute the shock element, irrespective of how high the bar is set. Images of poverty stricken nations, environmental disasters, war and famine have become as commonplace as have pornographic images, therefore loosing their initial impact.
“Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised – partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror,” (Sontag 1977: P19).
Regardless of the potentially ambiguous interpretation of imagery, there also lies an element of irrefutable documentation within all photographs, evidence of an event that has been captured for all to digest. Professionals often rely on images to develop an argument, judicial organisations submit photographs in court cases as evidence, newspapers use them to further describe a newsworthy event, and scientists depend on advanced photographic techniques to corroborate their theoretical data, not so different to how the average man on the street documents a vacation or special event. Through the diffusion of this documentary knowledge, a notion of ‘mediated worldliness’ is instilled in the consumer that pre-empts our actual experiences. Thompson explains…
“When we travel to distant parts of the world as a visitor or tourist, our lived experience is often preceded by a set of images and expectations acquired through extended exposure to media products” (Thompson 1995: P34).
However it is clear that this element of documentary evidence or knowledge, unlike the thought provoking nature of artistic expression and its subsequent interpretation, is limited to a simple consciousness as opposed to true comprehension.
“Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks” (Sontag 1977: 23).
Photographs, as we have come to see, exert influence on the viewer on two distinct levels; firstly through the inherent meaning conveyed in the image (or the indisputable conscious knowledge portrayed at face value), secondly through the power of interpretation (which accounts for the circumstances, or fields of interaction of the person producing the image as well as those of the person deciphering the symbolic meaning). We have also come to understand how prolonged exposure to shocking imagery can have an anaesthetising effect on consumers to the extent that photographs that once moved people to take a certain course of action (whether political or humanitarian), have to a great extent become banal and therefore seemingly unreal, almost worthless from a certain point of view. When considering how these notions have come to bear across the contemporary and progressive world in which we live, where little or no taboo seems to exist, where the appropriation of photographs has become no more than a form of aesthetic consumerism which in turn erodes the very importance apportioned to captured events, it might not be long before the ‘viewer’ in general terms, becomes an international entity, with shared portrayals and interpretations across the globe, privy only to experiences similar in substance to that attained through the consumption of a photograph. But whatever the future holds for photography and the diffusion of its product, and however the world progresses culturally and politically, the underlying fact is that photographs will always have a significant, and ever-increasing level of influence in our lives, whether symbolically, factually, or perhaps even as a de-stressor that keeps us unwittingly snapping away.
Christian Gadd (1977 Words).
Semester 2 (January – May 2014) : Media and Technology.
Sontag, S. (1977), On Photography, London: Penguin books
Thompson J.B. (1995), Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media, Cambridge: Polity Press
Wright, T. (1999), the Photography Handbook, London: Routledge
Lull, J. (1991), China Turned On: Television, Reform, and Resistance, London: Routledge
Bourdieu, P. (1984), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste 1979), tr. Nice, Richard, Cambridge: Harvard University Press