The Valley of the Shadow of Death by Roger Fenton (1855)
This is fascinating on several levels. First, there is a lot of discussion about the circumstances of the Sebastopol siege. Second, the photos themselves are impressive: those spent cannon balls littering the ground like rocks create, at least for me, a sense of tremendous danger. Finally, the guy who wrote this piece is a pretty good empirical historian and raises interesting questions about the circumstances of the photos and about historiography generally. Also, Susan Sontag comes out of it looking like a dope.
Errol Morris, the author of the piece, is a film maker with strong opinions about the concept of meaning in photography. His position, if I understand it, is that photographic images do not have meaning independent of the context in which they are made. This position seems obvious to me but it is controversial in some circles.
Sometimes, in photo discussion forums like this one, people post photos (of war, distressed children, street demonstrations or other contrived events, etc.) that they clearly believe to have obvious, usually political, meaning. And commenters respond that these are “powerful images.” What the commenters seem to mean is that the images are effective, in a context where photographer and commenter share assumptions about the pictured events, at manipulating viewers by non-logical means toward conclusions that the commenters agree with. In some intellectual settings a photo of a starving child would be widely interpreted as showing an obvious outcome of capitalism and need for more governmental intervention in the economy. In other intellectual settings people might make much different assumptions about cause and effect as it related to an identical photo — the child’s condition might be seen as an obvious consequence of misguided governmental intervention in the economy, or of dictatorship and corruption, or of poor choices made by the child’s parents, or of nothing at all (the photo was staged). Here’s a photo of an anti-Iraq War protest. Does it mean that the USA should withdraw its forces from Iraq? Does it mean that the USA should persevere, or even expand the war to overthrow the regimes in Syria and Iran that endanger Americans? Your interpretation depends on your assumptions, which are probably functions of many things — your understanding of history, values your parents taught you, etc. Who is right? You can’t know merely by looking at the photograph. You can’t even know the story of this particular anti-war protest by looking at the photograph. The image by itself doesn’t tell you anything.
Images are not arguments. This is true even for images that are intended as arguments, such as editorial cartoons and, of course, many photos. Argument requires premises and logic. Images do not by themselves provide these things. (Images may provide evidence but may also distort or fabricate it.) The people making “powerful image” comments about a photo are doing so either because the photo appears to provide evidence to support a particular argument — an argument whose premises they assume, and probably assume they share with the photographer, much as editorial cartoonists assume that their audiences will share their premises — or because they imagine that the image’s emotional power will sway people’s opinions in cases where reason and evidence would not.
These limitations of images as tools of rational persuasion are shared by much writing. The difference is that faulty logic and crude emotional appeals are easier to point out in written documents than in images. (Here is a nice example of a poorly reasoned, emotionally manipulative written argument being torn apart by someone who thinks logically and writes clearly. It’s difficult to do this kind of critique with a photographic image because arguments are necessarily verbal and can only be hinted at in images; they cannot be presented unambiguously in the image itself. At best, the components of a photographic scene function as proxies for verbal arguments.)
A famous “powerful” photographic image is the 1968 photo of a South Vietnamese officer executing a Vietcong captive. Not a pretty image, to be sure, but what does it mean? You can’t tell unless you find out what happened before the photographer made the photo. Here is an interesting account of how the photographer came to make the photo.
The account is revealing (in some ways, I think, unintentionally) about the attitude of journalists on the scene. This was the Tet Offensive when the Vietcong attacked South Vietnamese and US targets in Saigon and other South Vietnamese cities. Journalists and many other Americans believed it to be a debacle for our side, and the execution photo was widely distributed in the frame of that belief, which it appeared to validate and certainly promoted. The photo, out of context, made the South Vietnamese seem brutal and the war not worth fighting. In fact, as we now know, Tet was a debacle for the communists, who were subsequently unable to operate on a large scale in South Vietnam until the USA cut off aid to the South many years later. Also, the account of how the photo was made mentions that the executed man lived near Saigon (his widow still lived there in 2000) and was indeed a member of the Vietcong. So, in the context of an insurgency by communist guerrillas who massacred thousands of civilians and staged attacks in cities — including fatal attacks shortly before the photo was made — South Vietnamese forces captured an enemy combatant, out of uniform, and summarily executed him. This was a rather more complex situation, and one that is now widely (and correctly, I think) seen as reflecting more sympathetically on our South Vietnamese allies than is implied by the photo as it was seen in the context of 1968′s popular assumptions.
If photographs are not arguments, what do they mean? They may be meaningless. Sometimes they are meaningless but provide value by being entertaining: amusing, beautiful or otherwise nice to look at. They are extremely useful as aides memoire. At best they can provide documentary evidence to support or disprove arguments, as Errol Morris is trying to do. In the end it is the story behind the photo, not the photo itself, that provides whatever meaning there is. The story means something without the image, while the image without the story is meaningless or misleading.
UPDATE (11/1/2007): Here’s a thoughtful critique of Morris.