Musings on the Image

Today got me thinking about what images do to us and how we relate to images. In our first Festival Arts as Creative Performance class, Professor Tony Hall challenged us to think about performances as "per-formance," and to consider the way in which a performance transcends form, time, and space. During a performance, the performer momentarily ceases to exist, replaced by the idea and concept and energy of the performance--which is usually something that cannot, should not, and need not, be diluted with descriptive words. During the performance, there is no individual performer, only what exists on the stage and the experience shared by the performers and the audience. I think this kind of concept also applies to images.

In photography, I've found myself most drawn to images of people and I've long thought that the power of portraits lies in the commonality felt between people--that I look at an image of a person and I feel a connection to that person as I am reminded of what we all have in common. Today, however, I had a different thought. Perhaps the human connection we feel when looking at images of other people lies not in the human identity of the subject, but in that once a person's entire existence is flattened into a still image and is condensed down to merely the amount of time it took for the shutter to close, the image is no longer of the person, but now is just a still performance.

While photographs feel incredibly factual and reliable, they actually are in many ways the most deceptive form of image-making that there is. An abstract painting does not try to convince the viewer that it is grounded in reality, but a photograph by its very nature does. A photograph is believable as fact because it is simply a physical still rendering of the dynamic bustling active world around us. But life cannot be condensed into a fraction of a second without losing something. Or without losing everything, perhaps? The photographic moment loses everything except the portion of life confined by the frame during the allotted time. In that way, the people depicted in a photograph lose their entire identity once rendered by a camera, and instead become something else. They become a vessel for projection. I see a person and my mind editorializes by creating a world of situation and ideas and factors leading up to that moment when--CLICK!--the shutter closed. I see an image of a person and I feel connected to him or her because during the moment that I look at this image, the only thing that actually exists is the dialogue between my eyes and my mind, as prompted by my still performer.

This prompted me to think about photographic ethics. Take this photograph above, for example, of a young woman and her beautiful daughter. As a photographer, you are always in a space interacting with the subject of your photograph, but your audience sees only what images you produce. If I see a beautiful young child and chose to photograph her holding her mother's hand, I aught to consider what sort of editorializing my audience may do in their placement of this scene in an imagined world. If I take this same type of photograph from one angle, I have a backdrop of a beautiful picturesque waterfront with commercial banking buildings across the water. If I take the photograph from the opposite angle, I have a backdrop of Sealots, one of the poorest areas of Port of Spain. The two photographs would convey wildly opposite ideas about the subject of the photograph.. whether intended by the photographer, or not. It's an idea that every photographer must be conscious about and must make decisions about. Both scenarios are of a reality, both are documentary, and neither is in and of itself misleading, but it is the context surrounding those images and how those images are used that dictate whether or not the photograph is factually documentary or simply a still performance.


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