How we give photographs meaning


General Photography

Photographs have enormous visual power, but on their own they have absolutely no meaning. The meaning of a photograph is a construct that involves a group of people operating against a specific background (news, art, …), subject to the group’s personal, cultural and political biases.


Over at Fototazo, Tom Griggs wrote a follow-up piece on a couple of articles by Colin Pantall and me about the above photograph, taken by Thomas Hoepker on September 11th, 2001. Griggs’ piece is a great read, and I want to add some more thoughts to the whole debate. (more)

The first thing to note is that both Hoepker and one of the people in the photograph wrote about the scene. Hoepker:

“Somewhere in Williamsburg I saw, out of the corner of my eye, an almost idyllic scene near a restaurant—flowers, cypress trees, a group of young people sitting in the bright sunshine of this splendid late summer day while the dark, thick plume of smoke was rising in the background. I got out of the car, shot three frames of the seemingly peaceful setting and drove on hastily, hoping/fearing to get closer to the unimaginable horrors at the tip of Manhattan.”
Walter Sipser:
“A more honest conclusion might start by acknowledging just how easily a photograph can be manipulated, especially in the advancement of one’s own biases or in the service of one’s own career.”
Make of that whatever you want.

How then to read this image? That seems to be the crux here, and Griggs offers a lot of food for thought, writing

“if the emotional state of the subjects and the narrative cannot be extracted from an image, and the photographer’s intentions cannot be known, how about allegory and metaphor as a strategy for correctly reading images? Not if the word ‘correctly’ is left in the sentence. Reading and concluding - or better yet, creating - the allegorical and metaphorical meaning in an image is informed by one’s life experience and knowledge and a matter of subjective insights. As long as the observer remembers that their conclusions also remain in the realm of conjecture, however, metaphor and allegory can definitely be a way to analyze and discuss an image.”
A little later, he asks
“It [sic!] we agree it’s not possible to know the true emotions or narrative of an image, nor the intentions of the photographer, and that allegory and metaphor need to be remembered as a subjective reading of an image, does that mean that Hoepker’s image of 9/11 should be read in the same way as the above image by Gregory Crewdson?”

But doesn’t that mean that we’re in real trouble, if we have to read Hoepker’s image in the same was as one by Crewdson? No, we’re not, because this is where working with photographs gets interesting.

I will be unable to present my full argument here, since it’s very long (I’m currently working on what I hope will be a book about visual literacy and the meaning of photographs). But I can present a short version, applied to Griggs’ article and the kinds of image contained in it.

Griggs asks

“Is a news image in The New York Times as ‘truthful’ as one of Crewdson’s constructions?”
The crucial point here is that The New York Times is a news context where we expect images to be truthful, whereas Crewdson’s photographs hang in art galleries where the truthfulness of an image often is of no interest. In fact, Crewdson’s staged-narrative photographs are advertized as fiction. And that’s the reason why you never see heated arguments about the truthfulness of Crewdson photographs.

Heated arguments about photographs really only happen in areas were we expect images to be truthful. Of course, fundamentally, all photographs are fiction. Photographs are made involving all kinds of decisions. The moment you point your camera at something, you exclude something else. That’s just the way it is. But in a news context, the aspect of fiction must not go beyond the basic restrictions of photographic image making. You cannot get around excluding something from a photograph, you cannot get around isolating a very short moment in time. But that which is contained in the frame better be truthful.

When we try to read images we have to include the photograph’s context so that we can not only incorporate or personal biases (cultural, political, etc.), but also our expectations about how images have to work in that context. So reading photographs goes way beyond the photographs themselves.

Photographs have enormous visual power, but on their own they have absolutely no meaning. The meaning of a photograph is a construct that involves a group of people operating against a specific background (news, art, …), subject to the group’s personal, cultural and political biases. I think what we should be talking about is not how truthful photographs are, but how truthful we expect them to be, given the background they’re operating in.

Reading a photograph involves incorporating all these aspects. It starts with looking at the image, looking what it shows and how it shows that. But it has to continue with talking about the context, the way the context determines what we expect from the photograph, the way the context determines our biases (this can get considerably complex), etc. This is why I often say that we don’t really understand photography. We love to treat photographs as if they were self-contained little worlds that we can understand if we just look long enough. But photographs are embedded in a vastly more complex system against which they operate - and talking about photographs has to include that aspect (of course, in the context of art photography, things get quite a bit simpler since there is so little at stake).

Going back to Hoepker’s photograph, what we were (and still are) witnessing essentially is a fight over the meaning - or maybe more accurately: proper interpretation - of the photograph. Frank Rich offered one, David Plotz countered with another one (just like Griggs, I’m with Rich). I think while people like to stress the photograph and what it supposedly shows, the fight for the most part is dominated by political and cultural biases that have nothing to do with the photograph itself.

One last comment: There is a lot of talk of people mistrusting photographs. I think as a blanket statement that’s simply not true. Again, mistrust of photographs very much depends on context. People might be very wary of news images. But look at the billions of photographs on Facebook alone: Does anybody really believe all those people mistrust their own images? Given there are vastly more photographs on Facebook than there are news images, the claim that people mistrust photographs seems, well, a bit odd.

Photograph: Thomas Hoepker/Magnum