7. Notes on Photography & Language

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How to read the image is a major question. Of course, not of the kind that can be solved, but perhaps only showed: the reading of the act of reading. Here I will look at only one aspect of this problem: syntax and “paratax”—from the Greek opposition between σύν- and παρά-. Alf Khumalo speaks: “Suddenly a small boy dropped to the ground next to me. I realized then that the police were not firing warning shots. They were shooting into the crowd. More children fell” (The Observer, London, June 20th, 1976). Photography cannot reveal us that gradation. Photography is an impact and as such reaches us. Expressions like “suddenly”, “then” and “more”, as used by Khumalo in his account of facts, are not communicable through photography. A contrast: Neda Agha Soltan’s death filed in the Commons network. If we look at the crime’s filmic sequence instead, we change the very way we decode the message.

We use succession, co-dependence between images, though one of these shots alone encourages the brain to apply rules we barely perceive. A simple example: a diagonal line must be drawn from the left-inferior corner of a white paper square to the opposite right-superior corner. While looking at the image, westerners think at least for a moment that the line goes toward the top, which is a fallacy or, more appropriately, a convention ruled by our writing—from left to right, from top to bottom. So the written language and other cultural belongings can determine our reading of meaningful elements of an image, though it cannot be said that language sets the point on which our sight starts reading an image or guide precisely the order we do so. The image imposes its own rules through its structure. The reading of Bibi Aisha’s portrait starts in the dense blackness of her wound, the one of Ashtiani starts in the brief element of cultural identity, also a tradition’s cell, command and shelter. The reading of Neda Agha-Soltan’s picture remains around the fear on her gone eyes. From an undetermined point of the image, the reading is prone to open as a flower. Yet, here fits another clarification: Edward Weston said photography does not describe because description is an event in time; well, even coming to us as an impact, our reading of a photograph is a succession in time. To be hit by the image is no to decode it and no one would be satisfied with a blink in front of an eloquent photograph. The image is there; we in it not yet. That being in the image is the activity I care about. Opposite to the syntactic order of our sentences, the reading of an image is produced “paratactically”, with different elements on top of each other that we must track from the middle to the frame. This exercise, however, is not enough. The last generations—between whom we are already old if counting with thirty years or more—do communicate and educate each other through images. I say: “they communicate” and I mean: they censor themselves; “they educate”, which is: they trick each other. Image does not transmit any truth without ideas; ideas are impossible without words; words are untenable without the forcefulness of images. This brief notes look for a fair equilibrium between our codes and channels, based on fitted ethics. I take for myself the last sentence from John Berger’s Ways of seeing (et al., 1972): “our main goal has been simply re-start the process of doubting”.

August 2010