Central to my Visual Rhetoric and Multimodal Composition graduate course discussion are the issues of truth and reality as presented in images, and expressed through the medium of photography.
People often take photographs to assert a claim of existence which serves as form of evidence, the purpose being for reference. For example, fields like journalism, education, and crime investigation. We also take photographs because they are a form of visual embodiment which capture a snapshot of our human experience--as is seen within the arts and entertainment.
In her ongoing series, The Absence of Being Susan Burnstine explores how:
“The past remains with us, if only in shadows. These images capture fleeting memories, spotted from the corner of an eye that vanish the moment we turn to really look. And yet they remain, for the imprint remains with us. We are living in the present, but the past reminds us that it is part of us, too, as is the future, and we of them.”
Her photographs are richly nuanced and emit an ethereal, almost otherworldly feeling–they are meant to embody the experience of memory.
Let’s contrast another facet of intent.
Photographer Robert Knoth documented the devastating impact of radiation exposure twenty years after the Chernobyl accident. His photographs were taken since the Spring of 1999, from the regions of Mayak, Semipalatinsk, Chernobyl, and Tomsk-7. They are portraits of individuals that must cope with birth defects, cancer, and other debilitating diseases–due to the permeating presence of nuclear radiation.
As we view the photographs below, we know we are looking at documentary-style photographs of people–but unless we are aware of the photographer’s intent, we are not sure exactly what we should be seeing.
His images are:
“A testimony to the continuing medical, economic and social consequences of the thriving nuclear industry in Easter Europe.”
This is the Sultanat family. They live on a location where there have been 115 nuclear tests. Two of the daughters were born mute, and the mother suffers from severe problems with her immune system and thyroid gland.
Additionally, if you clicked on any of the links you would have noted that the photographs that are pictured in this blog post have been cropped from their original format. So, while the images may show a portion of the photograph, there are parts not seen.
This was done intentionally; it begs the questions: What was left out in the photograph? What was cropped? What are we not seeing?
We do not see the whole picture; we never do.
Additionally, we must consider that the “evidence” of life captured within an image, whether for aesthetic purposes or reference, does not possess a substance of meaning or truth that can be separated from the individual who created the photograph, as well as the individual who views it.
Semiotic meaning in photographs is never absolute or static, but instead is subject to the translation of the viewer upon its reception; the photograph is inherently connected to the dimension of experience unique to the individual that both captured the image as well as the one who views it, and what they are each seeing, hearing, thinking and feeling.
For example, in Joseph Rodriguez’s series, Where Children Sleep the children photographed were encouraged to dress and pose as they wished, and arrange their room to their liking. Rodriguez’s intent was to allow the children the freedom to present themselves as they wanted to, to the world–in others words, “this is me, and this is my room.”
“My thinking was that the bedroom pictures would be inscribed with the children’s material and cultural circumstances ‘ the details that inevitably mark people apart from each other ‘ while the children themselves would appear in the set of portraits as individuals, as equals ‘ just as children.”
He goes on to add, “The book is written and presented for an audience of 9-13 year olds ‘intended to interest and engage children in the details of the lives of other children around the world, and the social issues affecting them, while also being a serious photographic essay for an adult audience.”
Rodriguez’s intention is for the audience to view the subjects, ” just as children.” Upon viewing some of the photographs online, my classmates and I were unaware of the context of some of the photographs in which the children were pictured.
This illustrated how we don’t always see the whole picture, we must ask, “what is it that we are not seeing?”
For example, Ryan, 13, is pictured in North Carolina, USA. At first glance, it appears that he is in his bedroom. We note that the “bedroom” is rather sparse and Ryan seems to look out of sorts. What we didn’t know is that Ryan suffers with Prader-Willi syndrome and he is living in a controlled facility, because he cannot stop eating.
This is what we don’t see.
So then, what is a photograph saying to the viewer?
We can be sure of one thing, it will never say the same thing twice.
In his book Believing Is Seeing (Observations On The Mysteries Of Photography), Errol Morris posits:
“Perhaps every culture leaves markers for the future, a means of connecting the dots, of linking the past to what is yet to come. The ‘frozen moment’ of photography provides a possible answer to the problem of Heraclitus, that one cannot step into the same river twice” (273).
When Morris asserts, one cannot step into the same river twice what does he mean?
Our intention may be to capture a visual portrait of the world around us which may stand alone as evidence of place, but one can never experience again what the individual did who took the photograph, so again we are only “seeing” in part.
So can images lie? Is the message we send the one we intended to? We capture images to assert a claim, but is there truth in photography, or does it always seem to elude us?