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september 2012

Giving the moment significance


by Hans Durrer
Next Left: Samuel Beckett in his local café in Paris. Photograph: John Minihan

Recently, in the Guardian's "My best shot"-series, there was a piece on John Minihan and one of his photographs of Samuel Beckett. In the interview, Minihan commented on this picture: "This is Samuel Beckett in a café in Paris. He set it all up. He wanted the picture to say: This is who I am." I especially warmed to this remark of Minihan: "To my mind, a 16th of a second is nothing out of someone's life." I've never understood why, for instance, a picture of somebody caught off guard should reveal something meaningful. Or why a staged photo should tell me anything other than what it is: a staged photo.

Photography is commonly understood as showing us a moment in time. This of course implies that there is such a thing as time — and that, of course, is a matter of belief. In her study Dakota. A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris (1993) quotes Martin Broken Leg, a Rosebud Sioux who is an Episcopal priest, addressing an audience of Lutheran pastors on the subject of bridging the Native American/white culture gap:

  "'Ghosts don't exist in some cultures,' he said, adding dismissively, 'they think time exists.'"
  The concept of the meaningful moment, moreover, also implies that the moment shown should hold special significance. Here, Adam Johnson (2003) comes to mind, who (in Parasites Like Us) penned:
  "I shook the podium one last time, and, before dismissing class early, admonished them: 'All life offers us is the moment. There is only the ravishing spontaneity of being, then nothing more. Moments, people — enhearten them, for they are fleeting' (...) Moments are fleeting? I sounded as dramatic and fake as the romantic poetry glued to English teachers' in-boxes. Was 'enhearten' even a word?"
Next Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that time exists: why is it then that moments captured by a camera should be especially meaningful? I mean: why this moment and not the one just before this moment or the one after? Can we really just pick and choose at will from the continuous flow of what we call moments and then claim that what we chose should hold special significance?
  In light of the Buddhist saying that the only permanent thing is change, our desire to make moments meaningful is understable but also slightly absurd. Life, after all, is largely a series of unpredictable events and, as Penelope Lively (2005) once put it (in Making It Up):
  "... things might have gone entirely differently, when life might have spun off in some other direction."
  To live moment after moment seems insufficient: we need orientation, we need meaning in order to not feel lost in this seemingly arbitrary universe. And so we do what we can and invent realities, realities that provide order, stability, give us something to do and, if all goes well, an income — just think of how bureaucracy helps bureaucrats to make a living. However, the fact that reality is constructed does not mean that things only exist in our minds (whoever suffers from toothache knows that to be very real). It only means that our mental concepts of reality are amazingly varied.
  "Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is," says the Bhagavad Gita. Our need, and ability, to believe produces sometimes quite peculiar results. That, for instance, singling out moments, and making them visible — and this is what photography essentially is — should be, we are told by some propagandists, important and meaningful. And, it will become indeed meaningful if we decide to believe that. In other words, what we believe is a matter of choice, it is not our destiny. To quote myself:
  "... we are not condemned to expect from the world what our culture has told us. The culture we grow up in is not a static entity; neither is our identity fixed once and for all. We get older, might decide to live in foreign cultures, might even acquire knowledge that teaches us that some of the things we were once taught are quite possibly wrong in themselves, not only wrong in a given context." (Hans Durrer, Ways of perception. On visual and intercultural communication. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2006).
Next Let me get back to John Minihan and Samuel Beckett. In the interview Minihan says:
  "We talked until 4.50 p.m. He mesmerised me. Daylight was quickly disappearing and I thought the moment had passed. Then Sam said: 'John, would you like to take a photograph?' I got out my Rolleiflex and took three frames. They turned out better than I expected because Sam directed the whole scene. He wanted it to say: 'This is who I am.'"
  Maybe, yes. More likely, I find, would be: "This is how I want to see myself"
  Photographs, by giving us the impression of having made time stand still, attempt to give the moment significance. We are well advised to keep in mind what Barry Lopez (1998) had to say about this seemingly simple process (in "About This Life"):
  "I realized that just as the distance between what I saw and what I was able to record was huge, so was that between what I recorded and what people saw."
  John Minihan's contribution to the The Guardian's "My best shot"-series can be found at the The Guardian website, dated Wednesday 15 August 2012.
  2012 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes