3rd September 2015 – New Term and The Power of an Image

Back to School this week and the beginning of the Autumn programme. OK so it is still summer, officially, but we have the makings of a varied year ahead – Just look at the meetings calendar. So enter the competitions – all of them, attend the meetings and lets improve together. It’s a members club and that means we all have to put in to make it work out. Members showed some highlights of their summer break and it was good to see contributions from so many and such a wide range of topics and the differences in interpretation and angle from some of the same views, which set me thinking.

 

The power of the photograph is back in the news with the picture of the drowned infant refugee, Aylan Kurdi, being recovered on a Turkish beach by an unnamed Turkish Police Officer. It went around the world, was an instrument in flat footing the Prime Minister, and has had a big effect locally as well as internationally. A picture paints more than a thousand words when the raw nerves of humanity are touched, but even so not everything is always what it seems and one of the most famous war photographs of all time, that of a falling soldier in the Spanish civil war taken by Robert Capra has been under a cloud for the last forty years. It’s not isolated. Context is all. The plain and simple truth of a tiny broken body in the arms of a Turkish policeman speaks a thousand times a thousand words because a camera was there to record it and there are means to send that picture around the world in seconds.

 

There is no doubting of the power of the picture to provoke the imagination, to prod the memory and encapsulate stories, but let’s be honest here, that is not the point of taking pictures for most of the people most of the time – a record is what we want when the shutter is pressed. The stories we attribute can change over time as new experiences and new memories or new evidence comes to light. The fact is that we take the picture at face value, we don’t often, especially in family and friends photographs, take the framing, the post production and so on, at anything but face value. Our emotional connection over rides our critical faculties. “We seem to reinvent our memories, and in doing so, we become the person of our own imagination” (Elizabeth Loftus). Most of the time this does not matter. Different rules apply to the family photo album for the vast majority of people, wherein the contents are more precious to us, than to the curated representations of the truth presented to us by the serious press, and, by association, the not so serious press.

 

A good portrait shows character. A bold statement of something generally held to be true. Portraiture is a photographic staple, even if the reason some people buy a camera is to make sure they are behind it, not in front of it. Motivation adds to the power of a picture, at least to the photographer. The difference between the family snap and the professional portrait can be vast, (and we can learn the techniques of the differences for our own purposes) then there is more formality behind the latter than the former, so is it less true? “The camera cannot lie, but it can be an accessory to untruth”, (Harold Evans). The image stays in the brain, even when the context is lost to us. You probably have no idea who the migrant Florence Owens Thompson was, but I am pretty sure you have seen her picture. The story behind that isn’t as straight forward as the photographer, (Dorothea Lange) recollected or noted at the time. The incidentals that make the picture worth taking don’t detract from the image itself, the uses it is put to, the responses it provokes, are other issues. Rarely is there one truth, mostly there are sundry truths.

 

So is showing more a greater aid to getting to the core truth behind an image? The environmental portrait, wherein the artefacts of a person’s life, or rather a section of it, show more of their character than the shallow depth of field and neutral background typical of the formal portrait. People are generally more relaxed in their own surroundings, more likely to be open when surrounded by the things they are familiar with. Yet we do not know them better, we just know more, or think we do. We have more information to work on, but a cluttered photograph, unless the clutter is the subject, can be distracting. Therefore we edit. We select. We make the story from the bigger picture. No sounds, no smells, more isolation and sometimes we can be grateful for that. Can the truth live in such a world?

 

So, assuming we are not out to change the world, though everything we do has some impact, does this matter? As creators, hobbyists, semi-professionals, professionals, it is the image that counts. We don’t really have too much to do with the notions of truth. We just take the pictures, produce the images, post them with varying degrees of public access and maybe care a little what others think, “For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2). We are not, for the most part, citizen journalists, but carrying a camera, any camera, may just make us so. We might not know when that photograph we took down the street yesterday might be of wider interest in years to come. It doesn’t all have to be based on drama, just piqued interest. The picture of Aylan Kurdi was taken by an Associated Press Photographer. His brother and mother also drowned. His home had been bombed out. These are all facts, all context to the photograph. It’s not a portrait. It’s not an environmental portrait. It’s not documentary in the way the Florence Owens Thompson photograph was (and that was one of six). If it’s within any category it lies in Social Realism which is broader than just photography. But it doesn’t draw on any of those traditions for its power in particular- and we can measure that by its effect. The photograph itself sits at the junction of time, place, mass conscience and social action. It is a trigger to bigger things. There have been others. Every photograph has a potential it just needs a context.