Photos offer perception, not reality

Earthquake in Chile

Gregory Crewdson

Through the next series of blogs, I’m going to explore three topics—photography, murder mysteries, and modern war—that have fascinated me for some time and, as a result, influenced my novel, Dodging and Burning.  In the spirit of blogging, I encourage readers to comment on and add to the discussion of any of theses topics, particularly since I’m still in the process of discovering how they overlap with one another.

In graduate school at Bread Loaf School of English, I took a wonderful course called “Through a Glass Darkly: Modernity, Photography,
and the Art of Seeing,” and for the first time, I understood how important the invention of photography was to the evolution of 20 century literary sensibilities.  We read Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, and Susan Sontag’s On Photography, both of which are texts I’ve returned to many times.

Photographs haunt me, because they seem to claim, “Here it is, an unquestionable fact, a frozen slice of time!” but these glossy paper rectangles can hardly be indisputable evidence of an absolute reality.  How many times have you looked at a photo of yourself and thought that doesn’t look a thing like me?  Or do I really look like that?  The discerning viewer understands that photos offer another layer of perception, perhaps an enlightening or moving layer, but it is not reality, if for no other reason than we experience reality in three dimensions, not two.  If you believe that what you see is fact—if seeing is believing—then you are buying into the illusion, and frankly, I find that troubling.  Yet, media corporations, the purveyors of our visual culture, are banking on that very assumption.

In her essay, “In Plato’s Cave,” Sontag writes, “Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.”  When approached artistically, when a certain stylization can be detected, such as in Gregory Crewdson’s images, photos suggest a clear photographic vision—a photographer’s individual attitude toward the world he or she sees—and work to enrich culture and, perhaps even, self-understanding.  However, when photos are approached journalistically, such as images of the war in Iraq or the earthquake in Chile, in order to document a major historical event, I become immediately suspicious of what I’m seeing.

In those photos, so often, we aren’t thinking about the photographer, we’re thinking about the event, and we’re taking a two-dimensional moment, one photographer’s perception, and applying it to the entire reality of the event.  Sontag writes, “The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: ‘There is the surface.  Now think—or rather feel, intuit—what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way.”  However, if you’re not thinking about what you’re seeing, if you don’t realize that you’re seeing an interpretation of an event, then you could, potentially, be making assumptions about the reality of that event which aren’t true.  You are engaging in a sort of irresponsible imagination, like the compulsive liar who begins to believe his or her own lies.

In my novel, I set out to explore what happens when the image of a murdered woman is re-contextualized, showing how little my main characters do really understand about what they are seeing.  Because of this, the following questions arise:   Can you ever have the whole story?  If you can’t, then can you rely on your imagination to fill in the gaps?  If we are only left with our interpretation of events, then does that make honing in on an absolute reality impossible?

I’m still wrestling with these questions, and I feel uncertain about the viewer’s moral responsibility in the act of imaging what lies beyond the edges of a journalistic photo.  Perhaps, the only responsible thing to do is to remind yourself that the act of interpretation is an imaginative act, that looking is creating.

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Filed under Murder Mysteries, Photography, War

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