The Weight of Photography

Velma Tsau
2008-03-18 看过
Photography as a medium possesses the unique potential to reach and fascinate a single individual as well as a massive crowd, all the while inspiring those behind the camera lens to look at the world, to record every detail, and to capture endless splendor. It is instant, convenient, and directly under one’s control, rendering it positively personal. Many people who seek uncertainty and excitement, while simultaneously aspiring to gain an individualized perspective of the world, have been fascinated by the tiny black box that is a camera. In turn, they have become committed to realizing ambitions of eternity in what they seek to capture.
However, we exist in an era in which photography is attacked and doubted. We Chinese have a theory that one’s soul will be drawn from their body upon being photographed. Similarly, we fear that our unattractiveness within and without will be enhanced. Therefore, we remain defensive in front of cameras. Perhaps as a result, the weight of photography has long been ignored. That is, we fear the power of photography and the uncertainty it brings to us. No matter to what degree we create a façade in which we appear to appreciate the moment, it is difficult to hide our disgust towards these portraits which show our perceived awkwardness and repulsiveness. We fail to realize that compared to the many photos with our artificial smiles at the gate of a tourist spot, the photos with flaws are the ones that carry true meaning and reveal the strength of photography.
Unlike other art forms such as painting and literature, photography carries more objectivity. While a painting or prose can rarely offer more than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated objectively as a narrowly selective transparency. It can bear little interpretation on the part of the creator because of the facts it presents. It does not exaggerate or decorate. Photographers are lookers-on. In China, they are often blamed for being voyeuristic, apathetic and lacking humanity. They are often asked to choose between objective photography and intervention. It is similar to asking a CEO whether to reduce staff or face financial crisis. When you choose objective photography, you place yourself out of the story and take on the role of a spectator, with your photography as your primary concern. When you choose intervention, you are a humanist and no longer an objective photographer. Only when you manage to pull yourself out of the story will you be able to preserve an undisturbed image or area.
Excluding digital images that can be easily manipulated by software, photography is starkly realistic. That is, it levels the meaning of all events. It reveals the truth, harmonious or bloody, beautiful or unsightly. It has the potential to kill all the fantasies inside of us and force us to question and to think. “Photography has the unappealing reputation of being the most realistic, therefore facile, of the mimetic arts,” Susan Sontag wrote in her most controversial book, < On Photography>. One can further the argument that photography is not all about art. It’s about recording history and restoring past moments, surpassing a mere concept of art in its greatness. The advent and subsequent popularity of cellphone photography has been revolutionary in the history of photography, making photography attainable to most people. It has inevitably made photography “facile” and “mimetic”. However, the meaning of each photo varies with the observer. We ask ourselves “What is beauty?” and “What makes a good photograph?” Critics would gladly control our opinions towards photographs, to the point we fear the accusation of “Not knowing anything about photography.” In fact, those photographs that win the greatest praise from critics never lack many viewers with approving nods and applause, even if they do not understand it at all. And yet, we find it difficult to deny our happiness in family photos such as those at weddings, no matter how amateur the skill of the photographer. The significance of a photograph does not merely come from its composition, color or techniques, all of which seem too fragile, easily broken apart. Rather, the information it bears and the influence it grants a photograph the resilience will stand the test of time. To judge a photo is an extremely individualized thing, and a universally acknowledged “excellent shot” must then hit the souls of thousands of people and have aroused their emotions. It is its objectivity that has left much space for people to imagine, inevitably presenting uncertainty that stimulates individuals to think, to question, to doubt, to love, and to hate.
Photographers are perhaps the most honest recorders of the history, from that of a person to that of a country. The popularity of photography demonstrates its importance to individuals as well as to nations across the centuries. It is much more than merely capturing a moment, depending on where our affections lie. A photo of a beautiful girl may have been the most precious thing for the dead North Vietnamese soldier lying beside it. The picture of John F Kennedy at the moment of his assassination serves as a memoir as well as a stimulus for patriotism and recalling the glorious and suddenly tragic past. People come and go, as do historical events. The passing seconds fade everything which seems natural and simple. It is photographs that serve as convincing proof that solidifies our memories and demonstrates the significance of things. Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we're shown a photograph of it. Through old photos, Marguerite Duras has always been remembered as a lovable girl, and the years she spent in Vietnam where her love lies buried have never been forgotton. With old photographs, a massacre happened 50 years ago in the Nanking City by the Japanese troops can never been denied, despite the efforts of the invading nations who would just as soon rid themselves of their shameful past. With the help of photographs, we bear the weight of history. Generation pass, but photographs bear permanence.
It is a photograph’s audience that fills it with their own stories and thoughts, but it is the photographers that will have to bear the burden of a photograph’s content. It is in the years after the capture of a moment that the photographer will be tortured by humanity and morality. Their photos bear all the stories, all the desperate eyes, all the fierce battles; all the images and all the sounds. To photographers, their cameras are their eyes. The more they shoot, the more they see and experience. “To show that this is not the best of all possible worlds,” Bunuel once replied when asked why he made movies. Photographers and others reveal a world long forgotten and hidden, be it consciously or unconsciously. Those who perceive the photo live in a kind of fantasy world, whereas they see these photographers as existing in a different plane of reality, one that is cruel and touchable. In order to reduce every possibility of subjectivity in their photographs, photographers get used to keeping their emotions secretive and swallowing their anger, shock and concern. The accumulation may lead to an entire breakdown.
Diane Arbus, a prominent female figure in the history of photography, created a series of the most controversial photographs throughout the history. "You see someone on the street," Arbus wrote, "and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw." Diane Arbus challenged the old concept of what should be photographed. The definition of beauty should be abandoned since it is too individualized and changes over time. Like sunsets and modern women, freaks and pariahs can also be a part of our beautiful world. “Arbus took photographs to show something simpler--that there is another world,” Susan Sontag wrote. That is, there is only one world in which eccentricity can be frequently seen as normalcy. Arbus’ way of acquiring the sense of reality is her camera, and obviously, to be evil is also reality. The way in which Arbus “set up the show to make it possible for each viewer to identify with a great many of the people depicted” forces us to see it as a part of our lives, leading us to search for our own awkwardness. It suddenly puts us in an ironic position as we laugh at the same type of people. We finally realize that this is not a perfect world and we are not perfect people. Instead, the strength of human beings lies in the smiling faces of those we might call “freaks.” "I just used to adore them."Arbus explained. Indeed, they are fighters who have gone through struggles and accept the fact that they are inferior to others. Life goes on. People used to spit onto Arbus’s photographs in her exhibition, and could not help feeling disgusted and annoyed. They could not bear the striking fact that to some extent, they are similar with those “freaks” depicted. In truth, they had hardly ever smiled as ardently as those freaks they so strongly criticize. “Arbus's work expressed her turn against what was public (as she experienced it), conventional, safe, reassuring--and boring-- in favor of what was private, hidden, ugly, dangerous, and fascinating.” Susan Sontag wrote. These qualities are why Arbus’s photographs are revolutionary and constantly challenging people’s exaggeration on the harmony of the world and reluctance to accept the cruel side of our lives.
Humanity is one. The world is one. It is like a large room which has been divided into two smaller rooms by a wall of glass. Some live behind the camera while some in front it. Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation. Whatever role you play, you can not resist the impact that photography has on influencing human lives; gradually you feel the heaviness it brings. The weight of our bodies and souls can be captured in a photograph and it draws us to a deeper understanding of both ourselves and the world.
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