Monday, 7 December 2009

Press Photography & Magic

On 7 December 2008, Spiegel Online published this shot here:

Copyright @ AP

The caption said: „GM-Boss Wagoner, Chrysler-Boss Nardelli, Ford-Boss Mullay and Union-Boss Gettelfinger (from left) at the hearing in the Capitol: "Problems structurally caused".“
The context that the article provides is this: the American automobil industry is in trouble. It demands money from the government, Nobel Prize Laureate Paul Krugmann does however not believe in a recovery. The problems of these corporations, he argues, are structurally caused and cannot be solved by injecting money. Barack Obama however wants to help the automobile industry.

Now, what does the photo show? Four men who present themselves as attentive listeners: Interested, pensive, considerate. They act like this for the photographer. It is of course possible that they do not simply act but actually feel that way - yet the photo cannot show it. Are they so attentive because they had been publicly berated for coming to Washington by private jet? Or are they so attentive because they are impressed by what the senatores have to say? We cannot know that, we can only speculate. What we however know is this: what the context insinuates (the willingness to listen, concern, unassumingness etc.), the photo cannot show, it can only be ascribed to the photo.

In order to not fall into the traps laid out by press photos, we need to become visually educated. No, I'm not arguing for yet another training that helps the trainer to make a living. I'm simply saying that we should pause and look and think when we are shown a photo. In this case, what we see is this: four attentive looking men facing a camera. That's it.

It is useful to keep in mind that a photo is a photo is a photo: a two-dimensional reduction of a three-dimensional physical reality that neither smells nor sounds and that has always been only as real as a picture on a page can be. At the same time however - and that is what makes them so intriguing and special - photos radiate something magical. As Maureen Dowd penned in the New York Times: "…in Hollywood, couples who have chemistry on screen often don't like each other off screen, and ones who are involved off screen often don't have any chemistry on screen."

In order to become visually literate, we shouldn't strip photos off their magic for this would mean to strip them off their essence. Instead, we need to acknowledge their magic. For being aware of the photo's magic allows us to take an informed decision: whether or not we want to succumb to it.

PS: Not everybody believes in (or is impressed by) the magic of photographs: While conducting a workshop on "Thinking Photography" in Nykarleby, Finland, I used William Mitchell's famous example (take a photo of your mother and try to cut out her eyes) in order to demonstrate that we think of photos as having a life of their own. "Impossible, isn't it?" I said when one of the female students replied: "No problem for me. Everyone in this room knows that I'm presently having quite some problems with my parents. Only last week I cut up photos of them in order to make a collage."

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