Visual Paths

The question "What is a photograph?" is one I consider often. I'm fascinated by perception and ambiguity - that two people can view the exact same scene and be so differently impressed. In part, this is why my preference is to steer clear of crisp detail - being able to just make out the figure, shape, color, and chemistry permits a narrative beyond the reality. I try not to be prescriptive in its presentation so the observer's impression comes primarily from personal experience and feelings, not just objective observation. Sometimes people want the details - they ask for dates, locations, what people looked like … I hesitate because once the facts are attached, these inform perception, and the image becomes something else - less visceral in a way. Despite this, as the photographer, I still control what is/isn't presented in frame, and even in ambiguity there is influence of bias.

Those of you who read my blog from time to time know that the New York Times LENS blog is a favorite - it is thoughtful, usually incorporates a historical context, and quite often considers the concept of "perspective". An article in last weeks NYT LENS blog, "Toward Visual Paths of Dignity", detailed the photographic presentation of West Africans in the late 1800s and early 1900s to Europeans. The article's author describes how photographs were made of West Africans, often staged and out of context, ultimately depicting a limited view of rich cultures. One photographer, Richard Buchta, "pictured them in such total isolation from their political and social environment that they were reduced to mere ethnic types". As often happens, a photographer presents in frame what he wants his audience to see, artfully constricting the potential array of perceptive possibility - in this case, constricting the dignity of a people. Fortunately, as camera technology became more accessible, people of West Africa created their own photographic portraits - providing context, depicting their culture, and detailing life. The contrast is predictably stunning.

"The Wave"  ©2014 beachradish images. All rights reserved.

"The Wave"

©2014 beachradish images. All rights reserved.

These themes of observation and selective presentation exist today - perhaps more-so (consider the proliferation of "selfies") - and camera technology has been even further democratized - so many now have a photographic voice … sometimes even in the absence of free press or democracy. People and cultures need not be defined by what others choose to depict - they can present their own truth or reality ... or their perception thereof.

I'd like to think that the individuals in my images would like the narrative they see - that they would feel it was positive and complimentary … and that a particular detail wouldn't distract them from the feeling of that moment. But of course it's entirely possible that they would have liked to see the moment more clearly - see themselves in that context, to really know it was them … and to be able to show someone definitively and unambiguously, "This is me".