That’s what it comes down to, I think, when it comes to taking pictures. What did you choose?
Let’s consider how each picture we look at is actually the sum total of a lot of different choices someone made. I think the decision tree might go something like this (and some further choices will branch off of each one depending on what gets decided):
- 1. Decide to take a picture.
- 2. Decide which camera to use, i.e., choose what is comfortable for you to use, or choose which camera out of several you might own.
- 3. Decide what to notice out of the countless things you see every day. (It might not seem like a decision, at least not on the level of conscious choice, but I think you can call it one.)
- 4. Decide you must shoot the picture.
- 5. Decide which options to use on the camera (in other words, decide how you want it to look).
- 6. Decide where to stand while taking the picture.
- 7. Decide the exact moment to open the shutter.
- 8. Decide whether to keep it or toss it away. (With digital cameras, of course, you can throw it out immediately if you want to. I often do.)
- 9. Decide whether to show it to anyone.
Somewhere in all of this, probably near the beginning but continuing throughout the process, is the act of seeing. In English, and in many languages, the verb also carries the peripheral meaning of ‘to understand.” Of course, it might be problematical to say that we understand something just because we took a picture of it – but I think the impulse to understand is present in the action.
(It wasn’t conscious - in my own case, anyway - but after a while I had to admit that I didn’t just want to show people my world … on some level, I wanted to figure it out, as well.)
Ultimately, though, we’re going to understand that using a camera to make a record of a place is not going to work, not precisely, and I think that’s because we’ll start to comprehend something that seems obvious in retrospect, that the image is not the thing – the image is the image, and the thing is the thing. If the thing is beautiful, the image might be also – or it might not – and likewise, a beautiful photo can be created from a reality that is ugly, even odious.
So we are manipulating the real by taking the picture, often by the simple choice of how to compose the frame or arrange elements within the image – and we can later manipulate still further, of course.
So, what is it that I’m really trying to do when I take a picture? Preserve something that might pass away over time? Show people my world, as mentioned above, or as someone here wrote to me, “Photography is how we say, ‘This is where I am’”? Do I want to make something beautiful? Do I want to create something new that hasn’t been seen before, a fantasy image? Do I want to understand the world? Or maybe I’m just fascinated by machines, and want to see how to make this one work, and see how much I can make it do?
Maybe some of these things, maybe all of them. I’m still working on this.
In the end, though, what we have is an image, and only that. We don’t have anything real, just something we can show people – so even though we might have started with an impulse to show rather than manipulate reality while mediating it, just by the sorts of choices we’ve made … we have changed things. And it might be that we don’t show what the world outside us looks like nearly so much as the world that exists inside us.
Already, in the short time I’ve been at this site, Ipernity, I can discern distinct personalities being expressed through the photos people show … or at least I think I can. Which, I’m chagrined to say, also means that I’m displaying my own personality as well – and I find it comes as a surprise to me.
When I first picked up the camera last autumn after it had been sitting around the house for over 3 years, I think my impulse was to simply assemble documentary evidence of this place, and at least partly to show it people I know still back home in America. Later, it became more complicated.
I think the process might have gone something like this:
- 1. See something, and think, “Gee, wish I’d brought a camera.”
- 2. See it again, or something similar, at another time, and this time you have a camera, so you take the picture.
- 3. Say to someone, “Here come and look at this, tell me what you think.” Possibly the best reaction might be along the lines of, “Wow, I’ve seen things like that many times but I never noticed it before, or I never saw it in just this way.”
I mentioned chagrin and surprise a few paragraphs ago, and I think it’s because I might have believed myself to be separate from the things I was photographing – and it’s natural to think so, since we are standing behind the camera, after all, and only displaying the choices made. (Except for the sub-genre of self-portraits, of course, which are usually very conscious attempts on the part of the photographer to show him or herself, sometimes satirically, sometimes even theatrically.)
I think I might have fallen into that mental trap a few months ago when I started taking photos and then deciding to show them to people, the trap of thinking I am separate and apart from the world that I take pictures of. We don’t really hide behind the camera, do we? Rather, we use the camera as a theater space for performance. And, on some level, I’m still not sure I’m comfortable with that.
Other people have been taking photographs a lot longer than I have, and I’m sure they have some opinions at variance with mine. As I said, I'm still working on this. Chime in, if you’re around and reading ...