Every once in a while I come across a post on a photographic website purporting to present the author’s philosophy or defining the meaning of that photographer’s images.
Generally the former is nothing more than a statement of how a particular photographer works or a kind of mission statement often aimed at potential clients. The latter, though, is a different kind of claim and one that I find unconvincing for the individual photograph purely as photograph has little defined meaning.
This came home to me forcefully on a visit to Kyoto in 2015 where the Hosomi Museum was hosting a travelling exhibition of one hundred single images by Japanese photographers. Every image carried a brief label but that label was entirely in Japanese. The only information I could gather about any image from these labels was a date — presumably noting the birth (and occasionally death) of each photographer.
Not being an expert in Japanese photography almost all of the images were new to me. Some looked vaguely familiar while a few were recognisable including Moriyama’s Stray Dog image. Of those I had never seen before I had little or no idea what any of them meant. I could have inferred some meaning from the images (though with some it was difficult to do even that) but there was no obvious reason why my understanding of the meaning of these images should be identical with the meaning ascribed to them by the photographers who took them (assuming they actually did ascribe some particular meaning to their images).
Of course I was able to find some meaning in the Moriyama image but the only reason I could do so was because I was not only familiar with a wide range of his other images but also because I had over the years read and listened to discussions of and interviews with Moriyama. The meaning I could find in this image presupposed a much more extensive knowledge of his work and and a verbally communicated understanding of the photographer.
I think this is equally true of any iconic photograph whether it be Dorothea Lange’s Mother of Seven Children, Robert Capa’s The Falling Soldier or Ansel Adams’ Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico. We assume that we understand the meaning or intent of these images but what understanding we have derives not from the images themselves but from the verbally communicated knowledge of the wider context in which the photographs were created. Even Nick Ut’s The Napalm Girl which seems to have a very clear meaning irrespective of our knowledge of the background to the image is more ambiguous that we think.
We might see the meaning of Ut’s image as a comment on the suffering of the innocent in a time of war. But is this a judgement on war in general or on a particular war? Or on a particular way of fighting a war? Perhaps Ut meant the image as a specific judgement on the use of this particular weapon or as a wider judgement on the US involvement in a war that was not its own. Most recently this image has been taken by Facebook to ‘mean’ exploitation of a naked child, a view that was initially shared by the Associated Press which meant the image very nearly didn’t get published:
…an editor at the AP rejected the photo of Kim Phuc running down the road without clothing because it showed frontal nudity. Pictures of nudes of all ages and sexes, and especially frontal views were an absolute no-no at the Associated Press in 1972.
Horst Faas and Marianne Fulton, How the Picture Reached the World at The Digital Journalist.
Moreover, the meaning of Ut’s image is bound up not only with the wider story but with the later story of the woman’s life and the photographer’s relationship with her. Obviously none of this can be read from the image alone and we only come to know of it through other forms of communication.
Few of us will ever be in a position to take such a photograph but many of us still wish to believe that our photographs have meaning or that we can control that meaning for others. It’s an illusion. As Clive Scott notes,
because the photograph is so weak in intentionality, in its ability to say what it means, so it must either outbid itself, make its case with the crassest obviousness, or it must fall back on language to make its case for it. More particularly, the photograph shaves context down to something wafer-thin. The photograph can never tell us enough of the story.
Clive Scott, Street Photography From Atget to Cartier-Bresson (London, 2007) p8
While this may be a cause for concern for some I perceive it to be enormously freeing. Yes, I can use photography as one medium among many to convey a story but I don’t have to feel that any particular image or even a set of images has to mean something, or that even if it means something to me that I have any way to accurately communicate that meaning to anyone else. Photography’s meaninglessness, its wafer-thinness, is a liberation.
I grew up in Belfast in the 1970’s and 1980’s — not the best of times. The city was divided with neighbourhoods demarcated by natural barriers like the River Lagan or artificial ones like the many peace walls over 100 of which still stand.
Neighbourhoods were also marked out by flags, painted kerbstones and murals painted on gable end walls. Most of these murals ‘celebrated’ the alphabet soup of competing paramilitary organisations of the time. Later with the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland these murals designed in to intimidate and threaten became an unlikely tourist attraction for curious visitors.
While many of the paramilitary murals remain there have been attempts to persuade our resident artists to move away from depictions of masked men with guns and create a less divisive and less militant style of mural. On a recent trip back to the city I took a walk along the Newtownards Road which runs from the city centre to the eastern suburbs.
The lower part of the Newtownards Road in particular is a strongly Loyalist neighbourhood and has an abundance of murals both old and new. Here are a few of them photographed on a typically grey and wet Belfast day.
Our neigbourhood store was on Skender Luarasi. I don’t know if that’s what the street was called back then when I lived in Tirana but that seems to be how it’s known now. It was just round the corner from my house on a nameless street now called Rruga Liman Kaba. The store was owned by two brothers — we assumed they were brothers, they looked like brothers but since they spoke no English and I spoke only a few words of Albanian there was no way to know for sure. It was a tiny place no bigger than the front room of a small house with a covered outdoor space for the fruit and veg. They sold a little of everything not unlike the corner stores that dotted Belfast when I was growing up. I shopped there because it was convenient and I wanted to support them but also because the fruit I got there tasted better than most of the fruit I had ever eaten up to that point.
Fruit was seasonal, picked when it was ready and sold as long as the season lasted. I never knew from one week to the next what would appear or what would disappear. There were a few glorious weeks of peaches or cherries or whatever happened to be in season and then they were gone. Often it looked a little rough, a little battered and bruised and it probably wouldn’t have made it past quality control in Tesco or Sainsbury’s but it tasted better than anything I could get at any supermarket.
Watermelons piled high in front of the store announced the arrival of one of Albania’s most popular fruits. I have seen claims that Albania has the highest watermelon consumption per capita in the world (though I saw this unsourced claim on the internet so feel free to take it with a pinch of salt). They were certainly abundant in the shops in Tirana during the season so people were clearly eating a lot. In the heat of an Albanian summer cool, wet, sweet, flavourful watermelon was blissful.
Meanwhile a Norwegian expat of my acquaintance was working with the Albanians to develop export markets for agricultural produce. It was a tough job. He told me about the many challenges of trying to set up the administrative structures and processes necessary to get Albanian produce into the wider market of Western Europe, and of changing mindsets among Albanian producers and bureaucrats who didn’t understand why it had to be so complicated. But the problems weren’t all on the Albanian side.
My Norwegian friend saw the potential of watermelons as an export crop. They grew in abundance in Albania, they were a little more robust than some other fruit, they were delicious. But there was a problem. They had seeds. Western consumers had got used to ‘seedless’ hybrid watermelons and so some Western consumers resisted the idea of a watermelon with seeds. If both kinds tasted the same perhaps there might be some sense in choosing seedless over seeded (though spitting out the seeds is part of the fun of eating watermelon) but they don’t. The industrial agriculture that produces the hybrid watermelon has also produced the shelves full of beautiful but largely tasteless fruit and veg that stock Western supermarkets. So potential consumers given a choice of flavourful seeded watermelons or flavourless seedless ones chose to forgo flavour for the convenience of not having to remove a few seeds.
It’s been more that ten years since I lived in Albania but I was thought of these things one day when I bought a quarter watermelon at Whole Foods. It looked fine, it was ‘seedless’, it tasted vaguely like watermelon, though mostly it just tasted wet. Yet for many consumers it seems even seedless watermelons aren’t enough. Above the shelf with the watermelon quarters was another shelf lined with plastic cups of pre-sliced watermelon. At a generous estimate each cup may have contained the flesh of one sixteenth of a watermelon but was 30% more expensive that the unsliced quarter watermelon.
Who are these people I wondered? Who are these people who apparently don’t have the time (or perhaps the skills) to slice up a watermelon? Granted, something like a mango or a pineapple requires a little more effort to slice so perhaps people feel its worth the extra, but a watermelon?
My parents were teenagers during the second world war and entered adulthood in the years of austerity and rationing that followed. The values of that war and post-war generation, my parents’ generation, have stuck with me even though my life is more comfortable than they could ever have imagined. Perhaps choosing seedless over seeded watermelons or paying extra for sliced watermelon is a marker of how sophisticate we have become as consumers but I can’t help thinking that ‘I don’t like seeds’, ‘I want it sliced’ sound like the exclamations of an overindulged child.
Tomb of the Unknown Warrior / Nikon F2A, Nikkor AI-S 105mm f2.5, Kodak Ultramax 400
Sofia University / Minolta XD, Rokkor MD 24mm f2.8, Kodak Ektar
Lion Bridge / Minolta XD, Rokkor 50mm f1.7, Kodak Ektar
St Nedelya Church, Nikon FM2n, Nikkor AI-S 105mm f2.5, Kodak Ektar