Photography, Meaning and Historiography

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.

(The NYT page includes links to Part 2 of the discussion as well as to this page, which in turn has links to high-res scans of the cannon ball photos and to other relevant resources.)

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.

10 thoughts on “Photography, Meaning and Historiography”

  1. Great post, lots of good links too.

    Getting interested in photography makes it easier to pick out staged photos as well. A person who is interested in photography AND knows something about the subject being photographed (military history and guns for example) is deadly to someone who is staging photos.

    The most glaring example of this is the Iraq war. The number of staged photos, most obviously from “photographers” from the AP has been startling and at least is being pointed out in many corners of the blogosphere.

    One of my favorites.

  2. We have plenty of cracks like “no one ever went broke underestimating the public.” But I’m beginning to suspect that it is neither wise nor reaching some great truth to suspect other’s motivation as the worst. This “knowingness” is no more truthful and its side effects are no less harmful (and I suspect more) than descriptions disdainfully described as as “beautifying” or “hagiographic.”

  3. I think we mistake photographs for direct sensory input. After all, “seeing is believing” and photographs let us see. We forget that photos are really a form of human language.

    We understand that cannot substitute the spoken and written word for our actual senses. We understand, if only intuitively, that words merely serve to trigger information we already carry around in our heads. If we don’t already have that information, then the words mean little.

    We grasp that paintings and drawings, which originate wholly in the human mind, function as a type of language. All forms of visual art rely on certain conventions to trigger information carried in the viewer’s head. We often do not understand the significance of the visual art of other cultures. It often seems a jumbled collage of images meaninglessly juxtaposed to a foreigner but to a native it communicates a clear and artfully expressed message.

    We don’t think of photographs as a type of language because the actual image itself never resides inside a human mind. We think of it not as form of communication from another human but rather as a frozen piece of reality. Yet, photos do have a language and the photographer chooses what the picture will say when he composes it. A photo lit from below says “sinister” A photo lit the direct right, says “dawn” or “beginning.” A photo lit from the direct left says “dusk” or “end.”

    Photographers speak to us not only within each individual photo but also by which specific photos they show us. As one of the links above notes,

    “The 12 or 14 negatives on that single roll of film, culminating in the moment of death for a Viet Cong, propelled Eddie Adams into lifelong fame,”

    Photographers routinely toss away photos of the prominent that show them with their eyes half closed or their mouths slack.

    Scientist developed detailed and rigors standards for scientific photography in an attempt to eliminate the human voice from photography so that we can use to freeze pieces of reality. Such photos look nothing like those we see in the news or art.

    Photography is a language. Each photograph exist in a halo of whispers. We must discipline ourselves to hear them.

  4. I have to disagree with the post. For people with certain type of sensory input visual speak louder than textual. Architects, painters, sculptors. I can recall the plans and/or details of interiors of the place I’ve been impressed by 10 years ago but don’t remember the name of it or the people I was with; the emotional aura that surrounds the place comes from the visual image I have in my mind’s eye, not from recollections of actual conversations or other facts of the past. When I refer to a writer I have a vague colored image of his books; in work of literature I can’t follow the plot or psychological shreads until I form sort of a visual image of the environment.
    Before interpretation (of the photo, or a painting, or a vase with flowers) comes, the image speaks on its own.

  5. Oh my gosh, I’ve been so gripped by this series by Errol Morris, I’m not going to read your blog post till I read the final installment…

    But hey, I didn’t know any of the Chicagoboyz read the NYTimes! :)

  6. Tatyana,

    I too am am a hyper-visual thinker. I can only spell a word if I can see a complete image of it in my head. Sometimes I can’t tell if a word is spelled correctly if I change the font it appears in. I never get lost and I can navigate to place I have only been to once years before. I like or dislike movies dependent almost wholly on their cinematography. I still watch cartoons and animation, often with the sound off, just so I watch the art go by.

    However, secondary images are not visual input. They do possess an iconography just like painting or sculpture. As in any language, the listener supplies most of the information used in the communication based on the associations triggered by the “words”.

    The cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words isn’t far off the mark. It might be better said that we hear a thousand words in our head when we see a picture. When we looked at a photograph we need to remain cognizant of who, or what, whispers in our ear.

  7. The “news” media do not communicate facts or anything resembling facts to their consumers. They re-enact portions of a narrative (a/k/a mythology) illustrated with reference to stories that have recently occurred. The purpose of any narrative is to sanctify the claims of the media’s clients to political and social power, and to desecrate the claims of competing groups. The dominant narrative in our contemporary media is the Marxist narrative as re-interpreted by French intellectuals after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    Icons have always been part and parcel of narratives. Icons do not depict facts, they are ancient images that are intended to trigger emotions. Stripped of their connection to narrative, icons can begin to just look ridiculous.

    Technology has given us powerful tools to create and disseminate narrative, and by the same measure tools to de-construct and criticize narrative.

    An excellent example of the de-construction and critique is shown by these pages at which record the use of the MSM to disseminate narrative on behalf of Hezbollah during last year’s Israel-Hezbollah war.

  8. Robert Shultz said: The “news” media do not communicate facts or anything resembling facts to their consumers. They re-enact portions of a narrative (a/k/a mythology) illustrated with reference to stories that have recently occurred. The purpose of any narrative is to sanctify the claims of the media’s clients to political and social power, and to desecrate the claims of competing groups.

    This week, it seems to me, MSM’s bald and willful misinterpretation of Reid’s abuse of power with respect to Reid’s prevarication of Limbaugh’s is a great example of what Robert’s writing about. The powerful and important story is “the abuse of power and the prevarication by the senator” (quotes mine). The story, when it is mentioned, is spun without a mention of this.

    The situation is portrayed rather as a publicity stunt by both Reid and Limbaugh. One must assume that the situation is not clarified by the press because showing the rectitude and cleverness of Limbaugh, and the base, inappropriate behavior (for a senator, actually senators) of a party hack just doesn’t perpetuate the liberal “myth” or kick the ball down the road for the Democrats.

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