|by Hans Durrer|
|Photographs are never clear by themselves. In some way or another, they are only the shattered fragments of the broken mirror of reality and, as they show us their images, we are forced to reconstruct their meaning. Hans Durrer here reflects on the question of how to read photographs.|
|1||Right: Philosopher Roland Barthes
To read photographs is personal, and inevitably so. Such reading depends on one's upbringing, culture, interests, preferences as well as dislikes; it is also subjected to one's moods. Barthes in Camera lucida (1984) distinguishes between what he calls studium and punctum: "It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally — this connotation is present in studium — that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions."
Studium, therefore, stands for the general, cultured interest one has in photographs. There is, however, another element that comes into play — the personal relation, the emotional side. It occurs when one is deeply touched by a picture. Again Barthes: "... it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points ... A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me — but also bruises me, is poignant to me."
|Looking at a picture might not tell us very much and it remains doubtful if, as the saying goes, every picture tells a story. The photo, frequently, does not speak for itself which is why we want, and need, the story behind it. Moreover, to know what we look at, is often not necessarily enough to understand a picture. Benjamin in his "Short history of photography" (1980) makes this point by referring to Brecht's statement that "... less than ever does a simple reproduction of reality express something about reality." Moreover, "A photograph of the Krupp works or of the A.E.G. reveals almost nothing about these institutions." What we need is the frame of reference, the context, the story that accompanies the picture.|
|As much as the picture of a pipe is not a pipe but the picture of a pipe, the interpretation of a photograph is nothing but the interpretation of a photograph. The reader, as in the case of books, ultimately, does with the image what he deems fit. This implies that there is not so much a right or wrong reading than one that is more or less informed or educated. To further the latter, Clarke argues in his The photograph (1997) that "... we need to insist that we read a photograph, not as an image but as a text." And as Burgin, in the same book, elaborates: "The intelligibility of the photograph is no simple thing; photographs are texts inscribed in terms of what we may call 'photographic discourse,' but this discourse, like any other, engages discourses beyond itself, the 'photographic text,' like any other, is the site of a complex intertextuality, an overlapping series of previous texts 'taken for granted' at a particular cultural and historical conjuncture."|
|It is one of the peculiarities of photo-books that the captions — if there are any — often do not really contribute to an understanding of the photos displayed. It is almost as if to say: trust your eyes, look for yourself, explore what you see, discover your own picture. In The world of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1968), for instance, the pictures are accompanied by numbers that indicate captions that can be found on the final pages of the book and say "Paris 1932," or "Mexico 1934," or "New York 1964." With the exception of notables like, for example, Jean-Paul Sartre or Alberto Giacometti — whom one might have recognised anyway — people are not labelled either. Neither is the context of shooting explained — who was he working for when he shot the pictures? For travel magazines? Newspapers? Commercial advertising? Or were they movie stills? As much as one might appreciate not being told, this practice is difficult to grasp.|
|However, there are laudable exceptions. To name but a few: William Albert Allard's The photographic essay (1989), for instance, a book in which the narrative informs the reader about the coming into being of the pictures — how Allard went about his job and why, what the fascination was, and what the obstacles were, and how he related to the people being photographed. Or Berenice Abbott's portrait of New York in the thirties (1973) that gives the informative captions the prominence they deserve: "Text — the captions, that is — by Elizabeth McClausland," can be read on the title page. Or The Independent Magazine for photojournalism and new journalism, where next to the pictures a text can be found that gives the reader useful information about the background to the photo. That is one of the more helpful, and most rewarding ways of looking at photographs. For informed voyeurism allows educated guesses — which is as much as we can hope for.|
|2||Left: Photographer William Albert Allard
Often, we see in a picture what we want to see. An article in The Guardian, in April 2000, on the struggle over custody of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who had been rescued floating on an inner tube in the waters off Florida in November 1999, was aptly titled "The photo war." There were, essentially, two photos that made the headlines: one shows a federal agent in helmet and goggles pointing his machine gun in the general direction of the terrified boy in the closet; the other showing the same boy smiling happily together with his father, step-mother and half-brother. "Both images were instant symbols of two contrasting interpretations of Saturday's events — a brutal, militaristic raid, or a long overdue father-and-son reunion." What mattered, it seemed, were the political convictions held by the opposing parties. The fact, for instance, that the agent's finger was not on the trigger and that the gun was pointing down and to the side, was only raised by the defenders of the raid. The accusation, on the other hand, that the happy family reunion picture was doctored — Elian's hair was longer, it was claimed — was only brought up by the Miami relatives.
On many occasions, scrutinising a picture engenders more questions than answers. In Elian's case: How come a photographer was present? Why was the fisherman who rescued the boy in the house? Why did he hide with him in the closet? Why were the federal agents so heavily armed? Had there been no other way to get the boy out? Yet a photograph never has a single meaning. As Esther Parada, in Richard Bolton's Contest of meaning (1989), explains: "Our apprehension of information is influenced significantly, if subliminally, by context — in the case of newspapers, length, position, and juxtaposition on the page and within an entire issue, including relationships to other articles, photographs, and advertising."
|This, of course, applies to words as well as to images. What also matters is where a picture is displayed. We are, for instance, more likely to consider a photo as art when we encounter it in a reputable gallery instead of in, say, The Sun. Bolton points out that "... just as a social context makes certain readings possible, it can make other readings impossible. Institutions authorize certain meanings and dismiss, even silence, others. Thus there is a politics of interpretation that one contends with immediately, whether one knows it or not. To interpret a photograph, or any cultural object, is to negotiate a sea of choices already made." Moreover: using pictures in completely different contexts than in which they had truthful meaning — as, for instance, the photo of a young boy, dirty, tear-stained, and in pain after falling from a horse in a volume on child abuse — need be judged as "willful falsehood, a deceitful recontextualisation," as A.D. Coleman in his Depth of field (1998) states.|
|Putting a picture in context also means to not single it out. Walker Evans, when putting together his Alabama photographs, saw to it "that no single photograph should be pushed into performing as the exemplary image," for the goal was, according to his biographer Belinda Rathbone (1995), "... to make it clear that each picture was but a part of the whole, and that in their cumulative effect the viewer would come closest to feeling the reality of the subjects' circumstances. The photos that were taken before and after the now famous closet shot of Elian Gonzalez have been made available — the portrayed aggression seems clearly less threatening when one looks at the pictures in context. Yet depicting reality is not what this photo is about for it, first and foremost, conveys a strong emotion — a threat. "Regardless of historic fact," writes John Szarkowski, in his Looking at photographs (1999), "a picture is about what it appears to be about."|
|To underline Szarkowski's statement: in the 1990's, in a documentary film on Swiss Television, a young woman dying of Aids who was already too weak to leave her apartment, was asked how she organised her food. A friend from next door usually passes by and asks if I need something, she said. Exactly at this moment — it was a live recording — the door opened and the neighbour friend asked if he could get her something from the shop. When watching the sequence later on, the director decided to drop it — nobody would have believed that this scene had not been staged, he said. As Sam Goldwyn was once quoted in The Sunday Times: "The most important thing in acting is honesty. Once you've learned to fake that, you're in."|
|Yet in the case of Elian Gonzalez, there is also a wider context at stake. The Miami Mafia, for instance, as Fidel Castro calls his opponents across the Florida straits, argues that the Elian-saga is about freedom whereas for the Cubans on the island it is basically about the right of the father to his son. These are the two contexts the media provide us with. In addition: the Cubans that took to the streets of Miami represent only a minority of the Miami-Cubans, and the Cubans on the streets of Havana had been ordered by their government to be there. Furthermore: there are always contexts that are out of reach — or out of interest, or concern — for the mainstream media — for the usual gossip had made it clear long ago that this was yet another media-battle that most people were not terribly concerned with.|
|Nevertheless, as informed in contextual matters as readers of photographs might be, making an honest effort to do justice to a picture — to really look, and not to discard the evidence available — is imperative. The South African Human Rights Commission's reading, for instance, of a "seemingly innocuous picture of two birds sitting on a rubbish bin that appeared on the front page of The Star under the headline, Trash for Two. One of the birds is a Maribou stork," as a symbol of decaying Johannesburg under black rule — the bin — and of fear of Africans flooding in — the birds — appears somewhat far-fetched, to say the least — for the caption said that the picture was taken in Uganda, not Johannesburg.|
|3||Right: Photographer Werner Bischof
The wider context is almost always cultural, which is often nothing but another way of saying "according to my agenda ..." The famous picture of the lonely man facing the tanks on Tiananmen Square, for instance, has been read, in the West, as a symbol of exceptional bravery in the face of a massive threat, whereas the Chinese reading saw it as an expression of extraordinary restraint by the tank commander.
When looking at a photograph, the gut reaction comes first — I like. I don't like. This pleases me. That doesn't. Often, there it stops. It might occur, however, that we want to go further, that we feel we want to explore a picture.
Example one: I have known Werner Bischof's photo of monks walking under tall trees along the walls of a temple while holding umbrellas to protect them against the falling snow for quite some time. Judging from the temple's architecture and the monks' robes, it was shot in the Far East. I have always felt drawn to that picture, mainly, I believe, for its meditative quality. There has never been a need, or a desire, to know more than what was revealed before my eyes. The fact that this picture is close to me has not only to do with Bischof's eye for the good moment, it has also to do with me, with my way of looking at the world which, of course, is largely determined by my background. Having grown up in Switzerland, snowfall, to begin with, arouses familiar feelings in me; moreover, having spent considerable time in the Far East and being interested in Buddhism, I look at Eastern monks with sympathy.
|Then one day, while reading about photography, I started to become curious and wanted to know more about this picture. I consulted literature. In one book on Bischof the caption read "In the court of the Meiji temple, Tokyo, Japan 1952," in the other "Shinto priests in the garden of the Meiji Temple, Tokyo, 1951" — I could have done without them. According to the authors of these two books, Bischof had been very attracted to the Far East and felt passionately about it. This fascination, I believe, can be felt by anybody, even by people who do not know of his attachment. However, I cannot really be sure — for I am biased because I share Bischof's enchantment with the Far East. Having thus discovered common ground, I wanted to learn more about this fellow Swiss who had travelled the world, and I detected a "Weltanschauung" for which I have a lot of sympathy: "He objected to the behavior of great and powerful men and of dominant institutions. He demanded a great deal of our generation, and demanded no less of himself. He wanted to use the language of form to influence the evolution of the world, for the good of all of men," said Arnold Kübler, the founder of Du-Magazine. It goes without saying that the affinity I feel for Bischof's convictions made me look at his photos increasingly empathetically.|
|Example two: I was in my teens when the photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked little Vietnamese girl running from a Napalm attack, came to my attention — it hit me instantly. The emotions that this picture then conveyed have not changed, essentially, that is — I still feel moved, sad, and angry, but above all, I feel pity when looking at it. It is a picture that holds a tremendous fascination for me, and eventually led to several visits to Vietnam. I remember vividly the strong sensation of history, here it was, on this very road, that came over me when travelling from Saigon to Tay Ninh. The photo was taken in 1972 by the Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut who then "took the little girl to a hospital where the quick treatment saved her life." This is good to know, not least because one is often left wondering how a photographer could have possibly taken pictures when he should have helped. Today, Kim Phuc — 75 percent of her body was scorched with third-degree burns — serves as unpaid goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. Her photo — I cut it out of a newspaper some years ago, put it under glass and into a frame — is still with me. It is there to remind me of the emotions and beliefs of my youth.|
|These two examples stand for punctum as well as for studium, for these often go hand in hand — I have been, and I am still, deeply touched by these photographs (punctum), yet without having had my cultural background (studium), it remains doubtful that the punctum could have occurred in the same way.|
|4||Left: Photographer Walker Evans
Taking another person's photograph is not everybody's business. There are obstacles to overcome, as Sandra Eleta, a photographer from Panama, reports: "It was always people that I wanted to photograph. As I've always been very shy, that was a real problem. It cost me a lot to overcome, and it was part of the self-discipline I had to acquire, to enter into a 'connection' or a relationship with the subject." Respect for their subjects, one should think, needs to form an integral part of photographers' attitudes, yet this often remains wishful thinking. The acclaimed Margaret Bourke-White, for instance, after learning of Gandhi's death forced her way into Birla House, "so offending those present that after she had taken her pictures they followed her outside and tore the film out of her cameras" — so Miller in Magnum. In the same situation, Cartier-Bresson had decided to shoot his pictures from a distance and through the curtains.
Gisele Freund, not entirely free of self-praise, once stated: "I believe that a good basic training in sociology and psychology, a mastery of foreign languages and the ability to come to terms with all situations are more important for a professional journalist than attendance at a school of photography. But the most important quality of all is the ability to love people." Nevertheless, acquiring good technique and other useful things such as ethics at a school of photography will not hurt. Yet it is indeed not only helpful but central to know one's way around, and to be the kind of person who is able to establish the confidential contacts that allow picture taking to be not exploitative. The way in which Miller, in his work on Magnum (1997), describes George Rodger's expedition through Africa illustrates this nicely: "With his unassuming manner and quiet charm Rodger usually found it easy to be accepted in aboriginal tribes, although the Masai in Kenya did threaten him with spears when he attempted to take their picture. But his instinctive respect and sympathy for the people, his obvious delight in observing and absorbing their courtesies and customs, helped insure their — his and his wife's — safety: He did not photograph exhaustively and never intruded with his cameras, but simply took pictures when, as he later dryly observed, 'something happened.'"
|The ethical dilemma the photographer faces — how can one take a photograph when one should help? — becomes especially aggravated in times of war. Don McCullin (1992) describes such a situation during the Cyprus conflict in the 1960's: "I watched horrified as, under the duress of fire, one of the buildings disgorged its Turkish defenders and its occupants. Woman and children also began to appear. I remember putting my cameras down and belting across the fire-field to retrieve a three-year-old whose mother was screaming, and carrying it to safety. In later years I would develop a principle about trying to put back into a situation from which I was taking. But there was no theory at work that day. It was all instinct."|
|Afterwards he entered a house where he found three dead men of whom he took pictures, when suddenly the door opened and people came in, among them a woman, who, he later learned, was "the wife of the youngest man. They had been married only a few days. I'm in serious trouble now, I thought. They will think I have trespassed in their house. I had already taken photographs. It wasn't just trespass in the legal sense I had been guilty of, for I had trespassed on death, and emotion too. The woman picked up a towel to cover her husband's face and started to cry. I remember saying something awkward like — forgive me, I'm from a newspaper, and I cannot believe what I'm looking at. I pointed to my hand with the camera in it, asking for an invitation to record the tragedy. An older man said, 'Take your pictures, take your pictures.' They wanted me to do it ... When I realised I had been given the go-ahead to photograph, I started composing my pictures in a very serious and dignified way. It was the first time I had pictured something of this immense significance and I felt as if I had a canvas in front of me and I was, stroke by stroke, applying the composition to a story that was telling itself. I was, I realised later, trying to photograph in a way that Goya painted or did his war sketches."|
|Yet the photographer's ethical dilemma is not limited to situations of war. A portrait of the fashion photographer Michel Comte on Swiss — first on Swiss German, and later also on Swiss French — television in the late 1990's showed him running around in a hectic manner, shouting at the models while at the same time shooting pictures. This was roughly the same approach he applied when doing charity work for Terre des Hommes in Haiti. In one instance he banged his fist at the door of a shack, and when the door was eventually opened by a young girl, he started, without any forewarning, to frantically shoot his pictures, explaining afterwards, that the best photos were obtained when people were caught by surprise. The young girl, protecting her face, was clearly not enchanted. A doctor with the organisation, looking visibly embarrassed, said he was shocked that, in only a few minutes, the work of several years had been destroyed. Comte, in 2000, served as Creative Director of the International Committee of the Red Cross.|
|5||Right: Photographer Paul Strand
The question is, as often, do the ends — the convincing picture — justify the means — a deeply inhumane approach? This, clearly, is a matter of degree. As William Stott, in Documentary expression and thirties America (1986), explains: "Ever since Paul Strand put gold foil and a glittering false lens on the side of his camera to divert people's attention while he took the first candids, many photographers have found that they must surprise, even trick, subjects into giving them a natural pose." In any case, to judge photographs by the — perceived — sincerity of the photographer is highly problematic. Adams, who refers to photographers as artists, points out: "Some of the worst artists, after all, are the most sincere." Likewise, he dismisses biography as a proper standard for judgement. Since "... the only things that distinguish the photographer from everybody else are his pictures," he should be judged by them, he argues, because "major art, by definition, can stand independent of its maker."
It is not without significance that Adams is referring here to the concept of "beauty in photography," so the title of his book, and as far as the aesthetics of form is concerned, one cannot but agree with him. Documentary, however, is not only about form, which is exactly why sincerity and biography do matter. As Stott says: "The heart of documentary is not form or style or medium, but always content." Furthermore, documentarists stress feelings, "... they believe that a fact to be true and important must be felt." This is not to say that form in documentary is without relevance, this is only to say that documentary aims, primarily, at being true, not at being beautiful. Yet what is true is often beautiful.
|Moreover, Szarkowski (1999), while commenting on Tina Modotti's "Staircase," elaborates: "Although it is doubtless — or probably — irrelevant to the issue at hand, Modotti was surely one of the most fascinating women of her time, even without reference to her talent as an artist. She was an actress, a sometime revolutionary — by design or circumstance, or both — a great beauty, and a great mystery. The available evidence would suggest that everyone who crossed her path was profoundly impressed." Szarkowksi's not the only critic who loves the biographical gossip, in fact, we all do — and this, doubtlessly, influences our judgements.|
|Objects before the camera are not neutral, they always exist in relation to something. The German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), for quite some time now, is running a campaign called "Dahinter steckt immer ein kluger Kopf" that shows famous people reading the paper. Since these people are holding the FAZ in front of their faces, they cannot be recognised. One of the pictures shows a man reading the FAZ while sitting in a greenhouse, surrounded by white pots out of which grow green plants. The caption reads: Joschka Fischer, Politiker. Another picture shows numerous containers full of peanuts. On top of one of the heaps of peanuts sits a man, his face hidden behind the FAZ. The caption reads: Hilmar Kopper, Banker. Without knowing that Joschka Fischer is a politician of the Green Party, and without knowing that Hilmar Kopper became notorious for stating that a loss of several million German Marks was peanuts, these two pictures would be less comprehensible.|
|6||Left: Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson
Apart from the gut reaction, the ethical perspective and the cultural aspect, Lester emphasises, in his Visual communication (2000), three additional perspectives for analysing photographs: (1) The medium's history in order "to understand current trends in terms of their roots in techniques and philosophies of the past;" (2) The technical aspect — how does the medium work? What techniques were involved? — and, (3) The critical perspective — the refinement and generalisation of one's initial reaction based on the other perspectives.
Clearly, the more one knows, the more one is able to see. Awareness, as Lester suggests, can be learned. Nevertheless, it remains the great irony of photography that without being told what we are looking at, we often cannot really put a photograph into perspective. Moreover, the photographer who took the picture might not always be the best source when it comes to interpreting a picture. When Cartier-Bresson, for instance, visited Mahatma Gandhi at Birla House in Delhi on 30 January 1948, he "... had brought along a copy of a book published to coincide with his 'posthumous' exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The Mahatma seemed intrigued by the pictures in the book and slowly turned the pages without speaking for a long time. Then he stopped at the photograph of a hearse and asked: 'What is the significance of this picture?' Cartier-Bresson confessed that he did not know, that he never analysed what he was doing and never wanted to. The Mahatma shook his head and murmured 'Death, death, death,' then put the book down," as Miller reports.
|Twenty-five minutes after Cartier-Bresson had left Birla House, Gandhi was shot by a Hindu fanatic. Photographers are recording instruments that make themselves available for the "decisive moment." As George P. Elliott reflecting on Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother," convincingly pointed out: "There is a sense in which a photographer's apotheosis is to become as anonymous as his camera. For an artist like Dorothea Lange who does not primarily aim to make photographs that are ends in themselves, the making of a great, perfect anonymous image is a trick of grace, about which she can do little beyond making herself available for that gift of grace. For what she most wants is to see this subject here and now in such a way as to say something about the world."|
|This attitude, to make oneself available for the moment, is essential for documentary photography. In the words of Walker Evans: "It is as though there's a wonderful secret at a certain place and I can capture it. Only I, at this moment, can capture it, and only this moment, and only me." Magnum-Photographer Nikos Economopoulos describes it as "... I let myself be swept away by the charm of observing people, with an empty mind but what I believe was a full heart," and the writer Christopher Isherwood emphasises: "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking."|
|There are, however, documentarists for whom the decisive moment does not hold centre stage, whose goal is to portray the same people and places repeatedly in order to produce records of social history — like the sociologist Camilo José Vergara, whose photographs of rundown places document the decay of North American cities. Or Daniel Meadows' portraits of ordinary Britains in the 1970's, and reshots in the 1990's, that Val Williams called "realistic chronicles from the imagination."|
|7||Right: Philosopher Henry James
Henry James proposed asking of art: What is the artist trying to do? Does he do it? Was it worth doing? As to the first question: needless to say, we cannot know the photographer's intention unless there is evidence, like a diary, for instance. Yet Adams (1981) points out that James "just suggests that we start out by asking what it seems as if the goal had been," what did he want to show us? To answer the second question, "the critic must determine whether the work is internally coherent." The third question then asks the critic to reveal his own values, for the judgement will inevitably be an attempt to rationalise his gut reaction. Surely, the way a picture is read reveals as much about the reader as it does about the picture — and sometimes more.
Despite the complexity that is inherent in reading photographs, there are photos that are widely understood in the same way, they seem to be part of our common memory. The picture of Kim Phuc, and the famous portrait of Che Guevara, for example, have become symbols, icons — they express, it seems, universal feelings because they touch a nerve that may exist in all of us. Burgin argues that whatever "message" photographs "might be thought to transmit, depends on our common knowledge of the typical representation of prevailing social facts and values." As different as values around the world often are, there are also core values that seem to be shared by all. As the German philosopher Hans Jonas observed: "When giving birth to others, humans do not begin with a neutral calculus trying to decide whether to take responsibility for that new life. Rather our primal instinct is toward preserving life, protecting it, giving unquestioned commitment to it. Parental duty to children is an archetype of human responsibility for animate beings as a whole that is 'independent of prior assent or choice; irrevocable, and not given to alteration of its terms by the participants.'"
|Isaiah Berlin argued along similar lines in his Amsterdam lecture about "European Unity and its Vicissitudes" in 1959. As his biographer Michael Ignatieff (2000) elaborates: "Its [Berlin's lecture — HD] essential purpose was to understand what values had survived Hitler and Stalin with their legitimacy intact. His list was bare and to the point: there is such a thing as human nature, for we all share the same 'physical, physiological and nervous structure,' the same body, the same capacity to feel pain. Moreover, we are human beings: we would not qualify as human if moral considerations, however false or inadequate, were absent from our deliberations. And from this common ground — of a shared body and a shared language — we know the human when we encounter it."|
|Last but not least: John Szarkowski has been envied by many for his mastery in reading photographs. Most of his competitors, as Adams (1981) has called attention to, seem to have missed that one of the keys that made him so good at what he was doing was that he only wrote about what he liked.|
|2004 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes|