Photography & reality

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  • Thanks to a recent thread I read in TE, between Luko and Line, it came up to my mind it would be interesting to rise some fundamental questions in this forum. This type of discussion, although not being strictly related to photography, has the merit of allowing each one of us to express his own POV, not a “behind the lens” point of view this time but a singular opinion on the subject discussed. Having the possibility to share other’s photographer’s works in a “Photography” forum is fine, but being able to exchange opinions and debate ideas is better. We’re always free to refer to a specific photograph or photographer to illustrate our opinion.

    I have therefore three questions to submit, and I’m looking for the photographer’s perspective but also the philosophical posture in you. These are not easy questions…but hey.. living is not easy, that’s why it’s so interesting.
  • Re: Photography & reality II
    1.) How do you perceive reality and how does it impact the way you look at the world through your viewfinder?

    From before the early Greek philosophers to the present day, reality has been defined in many
    ways. Some are convinced that reality refers to tangible things existing in a material world, consisting of objects that have shape, weight and measurable dimensions. Those who disagree with this concept claim that no proof can be provided to establish beyond doubt that external objects exist. They claim that reality is based upon the perceptions given to us by our five senses, therefore untrustworthy to determine an uniform external universe. Is there an “ou there” in the material sense? Or is everything just a product of our mind, where we’re locked in our sensa which comprises “reality” ? There are also those, as Pythagoras and Plato for instance, who believe in the reality of forms (or abstracts, ie mathematics or concepts such as love, beauty, etc..), as an opposition to the material world which has no existence out of human’s mind. This leads me gently to my second question:
  • Re: Photography & reality III
    2.) Can photography cement or depict the nature of an abstract concept, Plato’s reality of forms?

    An associated question would be to determine if a photograph can depict the photographer’s subjective impressions. Or perhaps a photograph doesn’t depict anything BUT the photographer’s subjective impressions…

    A photographer thinks about composition, he has to decide on how to present meaningful subject matter, he has to exhibit creative flair, to determine the use of light, to input a personal content in his photograph to bring it to life. Doesn’t this means that the character and feelings of the photographer become the soul of the chosen subject? Could we say that the subject, therefore, has no real consistency out of the photographer’s mind, and would just be a completely different subject under a different photographer’s POV?

    3.)Can photographs be understood, or in other words can photographs carry a meaning within themselves and therefore engender understanding?

    This is a question to which Susan Sontag, in her book “On photography” answers “No”. A photograph, unlike a written text (or not related to a specific written text) can be interpreted, but not necessarily understood. Ah, this is not so easy. Some others state that a written text, at least in a natural language and not a formal one, can only be also interpreted and therefore doesn’t engender understanding much more than a photograph or any other type of human sensitive expression, be it art or any other sort of communication channel.

    So, are we depending on the subject or on our pre-conceived knowledge to interpret? Let’s make it more difficult. Are there very good photographers or just very good subjects (stating the fact that a subject is unique and just has to be “found” in its singularity)?


    No… I didn’t intend to f* up your weekend with a painful home work. Just thought it would be nice to kick your brains a bit. Now, put your camera down and use your imagination. Take it as a Christmas gift ;o))
  • Re: Photography & reality III
    Hi Gal,

    It's now the second or third time I am reading you post here and because no one has answered to this heavy stuff, I will leave some words here.

    Question 2: My answer is "No". You should bear in mind that I follow this hobby for the last 4 month so all of you enjying the fotography for the last 15 years more or less constantly will probably have some different oppinions with perhaps more insides.
    Let's see. If I'm not mistaken Plato is the one who had drawn this scenario in a cave. A group of people living their whole life in the cave. The cave has only one small opening somewhere in the top of the cave where no one can reach it. All what the people in the cave can see from the world outside are shadows on the cave wall. So they think the shadows are the reallity. I may be mistaken here but I hope I'm heading the right directions with this story.
    And your question as I understand it, is "can the photography be used to proove this theory". To undermine it. At least that's how I understand it.
    And I think, that's not the case because even if we see not the reallity then we would only photopraph the "non-reallity" and there is no advantage the photography give us, that help us to evaluate if it's the reallity or not.
    To your question 2a: Yes a photo can depict a photopraphers impression, not 100% but sometimes with a good chance to create such an impression. You propose the possibility that a photograph depict only the photographers impression. That's surely an interesting thought but I have a hard time to give this a long consideration. Let's look at a photo of a shoe. I predict that 98% of the people looking at the photo will see a shoe. Yes it's dangerous to be that exact and some will perhaps come up with some tests made that proove that my prediction is faults but I can't believe it anyway. I'm not talking about feelings here, only what someone see by looking on a photo with a shoe. So I would answer, no a photo is not always and in any case only the photographers impression.

    Well last time I thought and wrote about such abstract subjects has been in higher school (some 25 years ago) so I'm bit rusty here. Hope I'm not totally off topic.

    Cheers Thomas
  • Re: Photography & reality III
    I remember a photo project studied in communications classes about perception and understanding, which you may have seen before. In the B&W photo, there are two groups of young people facing one another. One group has darker skin. The photo has been presented to numerous groups and studies and the participants are to relate, later, what they saw. Their perceptions and realities are not only based on what the photographer gave them, but on those things which they have grown up with and learned to see in their lives. Some people see school kids talking, some see a street fight and even imagine knives and hateful glares. Personally, I don't remember what the photo "really was" now, but the lesson I think is part of the answer to your questions.

    Reality is what each person makes of it. To some, love does not exist. To others, India or America does not exist. Some people see miracles happen, and others do not. You might as well ask someone if there is an absolute reality, about which some people can be correct and others are mistaken about. No one person can ever be absolutely right about what reality is, because everyone sees it a little differently, based on upbringing and later thoughts.

    How does this apply to photography? Well, you may think it's a photo of a shoe - what about the kid from Papua New Gunea who has never seen one? It may be a photo that is obviously about love, but someone else sees a silent argument. A photo cannot capture all of what a photographer wants because not everyone thinks as he does.

    I think there are pretty good subjects, and some pretty good photographers, but not one can be absolutely understood in just one way.

    Just read the interpretations and opinions in TE critiques...
  • Re: Photography & reality III
    Interesting topic, Gal, I simply drop a few lines now to mark it and book some neuron conections in my mind for a further reply... too late for me and lazyminded at the time I'm writing this. I'd simply say for the moment that :

    A I won't reply to 1- as it is a too vast topic that owes more to epistemology and for which i have no sufficient knowledge (or far away courses) except that I'm deeply convinced I'm rather on the nominal side of the thingy and that Friedman toolboxes or Kuhn switching paradigms helped me convince that reality is such a moving truth...

    B question 3- is the more interesting (I mean to all photographers) topic I believe, I think there could be a way to an answer through semiotics and the theory of the "semiotics square" which is a very interesting analysis method that IMHO could shed some lights on many photos and photographers. I'll come back to it later on.
    (Sh*t should also re-read Sontag beforehand... you're giving us homework, Gal ...)
  • Is it just an illusion?
    Dear Michelle, Thomas and Luko,

    I would like to thank you for the comments you left in this thread. I’m hoping that the door is now opened to some other members who would have liked to write something, but have been somehow restraining themselves with the fear of saying something wrong on this “heavy” and metaphysical subject. Let me say that there are no bad answers. I don’t intend to put myself in the teacher’s shoes, ready to punish those who would have not learnt the lesson properly. These are questions to which I don’t even have myself an answer. Debating means interacting fragments of knowledge and trying to recompose again and again, in multiple shapes, the puzzle of our understanding. This is therefore a call to all the members who have an opinion to express. Go ahead, tell us what you think even though you’re not sure about your own rational logic or even simply your intuition . We’re all in the same boat, so to speak.

    Of course these topics are not closed in themselves and they can easily lead us to several other questions about images, representations, truth, semantics, semiotics, hermeneutics and a never ending amount of other disciplines covering our relation (as rational human beings) to what is and what isn’t in the representations of Time and Space. Does a photograph depict a fragment of life? Would life be a succession of fragments, a suite of photographs in an animated 3D film?
  • Re: Is it just an illusion? II
    Supposing there is no universal reality, but multiple realities that take form in specific languages around the world (sustaining the fact that each language represents a specific slice of the “cake”, and therefore every translation is incomplete and untrustworthy, and Esperanto a perfect nonsense…). Could a photograph be a language in itself? Does it carry a meaning? Does it speak the truth? Does it reveal something that can’t be seen in the frame, and if so is that something the same thing for each one of the viewers?

    I once read the following sentence (sorry, couldn’t state the exact reference anymore) : “There is no such thing as history. There are only historians.” Photography was for a long time a kind of reference to which truth was measured, a proof or an evidence of “what was”, and that was particularly evident with war photography in those times when censorship was still incapable of controlling ALL the images coming out of the battlefields (I guess almost everything is filtered nowadays). But in most cases photographs are as fictional as painting or any other art expression capable of modelling the world and putting it into shape according to the photographer’s point of view. We’re getting far from reality because this means that even photographic evidence can be altered to propose alternative truths.

    Every image has someone shaping it. What did the photographer want to show? Why did he choose a specific angle? Which story did he want to tell? Isn’t this completely subjective? And if the answer is that a photograph isn’t an accurate representation of reality, does it mean it is a lie? Or just a “flat”, and therefore incomplete, reproduction of a 3 dimensional world?

    But perhaps we’re getting more and more distanced of the main issue. And what if the power of a photograph came from the fact that its testimony bears not on the object but on time? What if it was more a statement that something “Was”, rather than a representation of a subject?

    So many questions, so little time…
  • Re: Is it just an illusion? II
    Interesting, today I thought a bit about your questions here. That reminded me on a philosopher who made a technic from it. He guided his audience by asking questions. I don't recall his name but he was and still is famous for this technique. Now you come up with some more questions :o). I wonder where this leads us or where you leads us?
    One question you proposed here is "Does it (the photo) speak the truth?". I guess you can fill a book answering this question and at the end there are probably more open questions than answers. What is the truth? Is there only one truth, or are there an unlimited number of truths? What is it good for to ask this question? and so on...
    Perhaps the truth is not only one statement or a specific moment in time but a collection of facts and moments in a period of time. Let's say we have a situation where two different compositions have been made of the same place. One is showing only a group of ten people demonstrating against something, the message accompanying this photo is "public interest isn't that great". The other composition showing the same place with thousands of people (perhaps not all of them participating the demonstration), the message accompanying this photo is "public displays great concernes about this subject". What truth does this situation show us. Perhaps the truth here is "Manipulation of people through a photo!"?

    As you said, Gal. So many questions and so little time.
  • Re: Is it just an illusion? II
    The name of the philosopher I was refering to is Sokrates. Just googled a bit and found it now. I'm not that good in remembering those names.