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december 2009

On press photography, context & magic


by Hans Durrer

Photo right © dpa — Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

Difficult to imagine, a political debate without several "you've quoted me out of context's" — isn't it? It is a real killer argument; it implies that context is something fixed, and clear, and understood by all reasonable people in the same way. Well, it is not. Context is made — and usually serves the ones who profit from it.

Likewise, the notion that for a photo to be understood it needs to be seen in context is widely accepted. Sure, no doubt about that. But who defines this context? Mostly the interests of the company the photographer is working for.

It is the context provider who determines how a picture will be read. A photograph that hangs in a reputable gallery is more likely to be considered art than when it is found on page 20 of a tabloid. In other words, how we read a photograph has often more to do with the context in which it is shown and less with what it depicts.

  In the media-world (in newspapers, in advertising and so on), photos are usually displayed without information that explains what we are looking at. Why? Because they only "function" without it. Take the picture above, for instance ...
  If you are a reasonably informed person — in matters of politics, I mean — then you will easily identify this photo as depicting Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel and, probably, a high ranking civil servant in front of Downing Street Number 10. What are they doing? Are they perhaps birdwatching? Do they point at a passing airplane? Or did they maybe spot an eagle about to land? The fact that the man in the background doesn't fall for the show might indicate that we shouldn't either and would be well advised to stick to what the photo shows: Brown and Merkel gesturing for the cameras. Why would they do that? Because their advisors (not shown in the photograph) must have told them to do that, by pointing their fingers in a certain direction and by firmly looking into the distance, they will come across as leaders. Does it work? Most probably, because we are all looking for guidance.
Next However: As soon as we start thinking about what our eyes are showing us, the message that the ones portrayed try to send out gets lost and the protagonists look somehow ridiculous. To point at nothing in particular because there are cameras around — don't they feel embarrassed by acting like this? In my job, feelings do not count, says the politician to the prostitute. I know exactly what you mean, replies the prostitute, it is the same in my job.
  Photo left © AP — Associated Press

On 7 December 2008, Spiegel Online published the shot at the left. 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 this 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 that. 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, do know is this: what the context insinuates — the willingness to listen, concern, unassumingness and so on — the photo cannot show by itself; it can only be ascribed to the photo.
Next 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.
  P.S. Not everybody believes in (or is as easily 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."

  • Dowd, Maureen (2008), "There will be blood." In The New York Times, February 3, 2008.
  • Mitchell, W.J. Thomas (2006), What do pictures want? The lives and loves of images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2009 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes