Three ways to look at a photograph

What do we see when we recognise another human being, a stranger to us, in a photograph? Do we long for a kind of connection? Do we wish to recognise an aspect of ourselves in a photograph of someone else? French philosopher Roland Barthes says a photograph is a shared hallucination. Grappling with the existential dilemma of humankind’s responsibilities to itself, he thinks it is a kind of madness, or a form of love, to be stirred (he says ‘pricked’) by an image of somebody in a photograph: ‘… my eyes were touched with a kind of painful and delicious intensity, as if I were suddenly experiencing the effects of a strange drug; each detail, which I was seeing so exactly, savouring it, so to speak, down to its last evidence, overwhelmed me.’ Barthes is constantly astonished at what the photograph shows him. It is the genesis of a fundamental empathy. This person existed! They experienced a life, just as I do now. Perhaps they had similar feelings to mine; they are, after all, a human being like me. How did they fend for themselves in this world? He feels what he calls the ‘air’ in the photograph, the air that conveys something true about the person depicted. Looking at various photographs of his mother, he chances upon the one photograph in which he does ‘much more than recognise her’. I discover her.

American philosopher Susan Sontag says that photographs give us the illusion of command – that taking a photograph gives us the feeling that we have knowledge of the subject we are seeing. ‘Starting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of the Communards in June, 1871,’ Sontag writes, ‘photographs become a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations’. In photography’s ubiquity, in its apparent passivity, aggression resides. Photographs of people like us, seemingly neutral and documentary in nature, are ‘haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience’. That particular look on a person’s face, the cast of light, the capturing of despair or dignity, the preference for one shot over another, mean that ‘standards are always being imposed on the subject’. A photograph can capture existence; it might convey an experience of reality, and yet, ‘photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as any other work of art’.

We believe in, and distrust photography. French philosopher Tristan Garcia explains that the invention of photography first invoked natural truth-to-appearance: we could objectively see our own faces and the faces of others in a photograph. He goes on to characterise the medium with a sense of melancholy: ‘What is living remains in some fashion present in the image, but it does not remain living.’ Maybe this is why we are seemingly obsessed with photographs – because they remind us that we are living beings. Photographs enable us to at once stave off and process the inevitability of death. Photography feels like ‘a mechanical witness’ and ‘it accomplishes a transfer of presence, tearing from the destructive power of time the presence of what no longer is, embalming it and conserving it in the image’. The photograph is not the real person; it is not their physical trace or the trace of particles of light that illuminated them, or, as Garcia describes it, ‘the photons that were in contact with the faces of our youth are not those that entered into contact with the photographic device’. What, then, do we see in a photograph of another human being? What can we see? ‘What a photograph captures is an ensemble of luminous events’, says Garcia. The photograph is a recording, but it cannot help but represent, for us, ‘scenes that engage the bodies, figures, and attitudes of both living beings and landscapes’.

Barthes’ inquisitive empathy; Sontag’s inherent subjectivity; Garcia’s poignant struggle to comprehend our fleeting lives within an infinite universe: each element
brings potent, nuanced perspective to the medium of photography. In summation, there is a foundational truth: we need photographs of our world, of each other,
to confirm our own existence to ourselves as human beings. Photography makes our perception of space and objects, and of human beings, meaningful.

Dr Christopher Chapman, Senior Curator National Portrait Gallery and judge, National Photographic Portrait Prize 2019