1. Notes on Photography & Language

Photography has been discussed tirelessly. Such arguments, however, will never reach the vertigo produced by the cameras of the world. At first glance, this seems to me a waste and then some sort of poverty, because the image alone is neither an idea nor a development, but an impression susceptible to be interpreted out of context. Like everything else, it might be said; but the photographic image has no defense against such use: nobody will pervert an ethical idea—for instance—if understood; whoever distorts it, has not yet comprehended it. At the same time, a fair reception of the same hypothetic idea does not allow its tergiversation: no one will legitimately take an argument in favor of raw violence based on an ethical thought, even being this one presumably diverted. In the opposite way, an ethical image—and I write these lines under the conviction that most of them are just that—can be sent or received illegitimately, modifying the truth with its realism. Truth and reality are different things. To thoughtlessly give the photographic image the rank of truth is already misunderstand it. Words, unable to reproduce reality with the efficiency of a photograph, are closer to truth—precisely in the way photographs are closer to reality. Though there is a meeting point for these two kinds of speech; to understand it can help rectify certain uses of both images and words. The use of abstract notions of supposed absolutes like Evilness, Nation, Freedom or God, between many others, is to cheapen words by using them as images. A fundamental element of words: they need each other to become speech. This interdependence does not belong to the photographic image, unless we are talking about a sequence—the movie is a different type of speech with rules of its own and different uses and problems, and it demands a different comment. By strengthening absolute abstractions we don’t take advantage of the human language, major distinction, privilege and wealth of us in front of all the known things. On the other side, to give the photographic image the same distrust we give to words—which means: to acknowledge that images are also conventional and arbitrary—destroys the pretentions of objective truth that a photographer or an editor, either dishonestly or ingenuously, might intend to impose on the viewer. Photographs are not words and even if the image by itself, mix of lights, is not completely conventional and arbitrary, our choice to capture it—that specific face, from that angle, on that page—abolishes the mistake of guessing the truth with one single photograph. While looking at the portrait of a girl, what we really see is a frame, a will, a sight. Which one is the legitimate use of an ethical image, if neither is neither the absolute abstraction that generalizes nor the dependence with other expressions?

When I name you, Aisha, I acknowledge the tragedy and the sorrow of your mutilated features. I see directly the impossibility of understanding both the very materiality of your pain—then—and the strength of your hope—now. Rage and frustration boil. Disgust for that of which we are capable. Boils the shame. Clumsily, the mind gains back its domain. Just with your name: that use of the language is called invocation. A portrait is neither the truth nor even the reality: it is an invocation. An example of truth: NATO forces have not prioritized the well being of women in Afghanistan and even have made deals with an openly misogynist regime in order to win the war—whatever NATO understands by “winning the war”. Another example of truth: the people who edit and produce Time Magazine, professionals, do know better. A third example: we, the people from countries represented by NATO, have the means to get accurate information, in order to look at the August 9 2010 cover of Time from a fair perspective. In democratic countries—and that is what we say we are—, the misleading editorial line of a legitimate invocation cannot trick but to those who ask for it.

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August 2010

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