stillness and the image

The photograph is often celebrated for its ability to freeze and extend indefinitely a moment that is by nature only temporary. Perhaps photography has remained such a powerful medium even with the growth of television and video because of its capacity to (re)present a moment free from the “distractions” of movement and time. The significance of the still image can be made clear when considered in relation to the draw of the moving image. I think that many people love film because of its multisensory nature–combining visual, sonic, and narrative elements to allow a viewer to experience a filmmaker’s constructed world “as if you were really there.” In contrast, a photograph communicates its message through only one channel: the visual. So, while a photograph may represent a reality, for a viewer, it also communicates a distance. The visual information presented without its contextualizing sonic or temporal markers works to impart a sense that there is something missing from a total understanding of the scene at hand. Renée Byer writes, “In this fast-paced world, where the emphasis is on immediacy, a still photograph stops time. It gives the viewer a moment to think, to react, to feel.” (my emphasis). Perhaps it is the subtle distanciation performed by a photograph that creates this moment for reflection and the sensation of time being stopped.

There is this idea that photography presents an unfiltered, indexical re-presentation of reality. However, this belief is complicated by looking critically at the ideas of truth, authenticity and perception, technology, and the nature of reality itself. In many ways, photographs embody the interplay of denotation and connotation in the making of meaning. While a photograph may graphically depict certain objects and subjects, we wouldn’t say that the image is the same thing these objects. A photograph lacks a fixed meaning or interpretation. Consider a chair, engineered using design principles that function to invite a person to sit in it. Now, consider a photograph depicting that same chair–in what ways is this different? Is the photograph of the chair more or less real than the chair itself?  In this way, photography can be seen as a kind of duplication or recreation. Interestingly, the version of an object that exists within a photograph lacks a spatial life (it doesn’t exist in three-dimensional space), it seems to gain a psychical or intellectual life. Reckoning with this aspect of photography means thinking about the metaphysical and discursive power of the image. Much has been written about the social and political workings of the photograph, and one particularly powerful work on this topic is Dionne Brand’s An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading (University of Alberta Press, 2020). Brand writes “the photograph is supposed to reach its viewers and reassure them,… Ultimately, the photograph can’t do all the work it is required to do,”.

How does the challenge of digitally-altered or counterfeit images impact photography’s promise of record and memorialization? Photography raises questions of ethics when we consider the coloniality of visuality; regimes of visibility and invisibility, political economies of the image, and other uneven vulnerabilities. What does a photograph ask of its viewer? How does it deliver its meaning? What is the promise of a photograph? How does the photographer’s intention figure in the calculation of meaning and interpretation of the image? Tony Northrup’s video on the aftermath of “The Afghan Girl,” (1985), speaks to the issue of ethics in regards to photography. The girl in the photo, Sharbat Gula, is turned into a spectacle through the mass publication of her image. People in far away lands marvel and gawk at what they perceive to be a beautiful, pitiful young girl. Proponents of photojournalism argue that her image inspired millions to understand the plight of refugees. I do wonder how Sharbat’s experience after the photo complicates the photograph’s story of success. What does it mean that Sharbat’s image was the vehicle for McCurry celebrity as a photographer?

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