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 than 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 believe 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.