What kinds of subjects might be seen as un-photographable? How might you go about portraying them using photography?
In general anything which emits or reflects light should be capable of producing a photographic image. Apples turn out quite well in daylight, anger not so much, not even with flash. So if the physical thing can be persuaded to stand still for long enough we can usually get a snap of it, but feelings, hidden events, thoughts and ideas are too nebulous for the simple apparatus of camera and film/sensor. A substitute must be found to stand-in for the intangible notion, so the photographer will often turn to indirect representation – visual metaphor, allegory, symbolism and similitude.
An attempt to represent anger for example, may find expression in a range of devices, some of them at the rather literal end of the metaphorical spectrum, others of a more obscure nature.
Although it’s not possible to photograph anger itself, capturing the expression of anger is quite straightforward – no mistaking how the woman on the left is feeling. Volcanoes don’t have feelings (well, perhaps in mythology) but the image on the right may be used as a visual metaphor for anger. This works partly because of the common language which we can associate with the two pictures – erupting, violent, hot, unpredictable and so on.
Where a more personal photographic vector is called for, the resulting image may be so far from any reasonable association that some textual assistance is needed to guide the viewer. With sufficiently directed text almost any image could theoretically be coerced into a representative role.
This image could be used to express a feeling of chaos, overwhelming force, stoicism or yes, anger….. shared vocabulary: angry sea, angry waves. But without accompanying text the intended meaning may be lost.
Even more obscure, the image above is very ambiguous but with the right text and with other images in a similar vein, a sense of anger could be conveyed. Considering the contents of the image, we see a room darkened by a window blind, though it appears to be light outside; a pillow; a sheet and a chair. No person present, but a suggestion of a recent presence.
I’ll apply some context – somebody has been sleeping here, at night time. The room looks well cared for and appears to be part of a house. Most houses have bedrooms, so someone has chosen to sleep not in a bedroom, but on the uncomfortable floor of an adjacent room. Maybe something to do with the woman, upper left? The two images are completely unrelated of course, but with some contextualising text, many disparate images can be imbued with coherent meaning.
It’s interesting to note that as the representative image becomes more obscure and ambivalent, the meanings which it is capable of sustaining become ever more subtle and nuanced. This relies increasingly on an empathetic response from the viewer, allowing a transference of meaning in the opposite direction – from viewer to image rather than the other way around. John Szarkowski alluded to this functional exchange in “Mirrors and Windows”.
The job of this assignment is to make photographs which convey an intangible via the tangible. No pressure, then. Words are ideally suited to this task – they can convey all the subtlety and nuance of the intangible in infinite variety; arranged in particular form they speak the words directly to us. Photographs have a harder job of it so they must employ other strategies such as visual intrigue.
” Its about locating particular moments and places in relation to other moments and places and the way in which they form larger stories overall”
David Campbell – Narrative, Power and Responsibility https://soundcloud.com/mattjohnston/david-campbell (accessed August 23, 2017).
Glenna Gordon’s work on the Nigerian schoolgirl hostages could not include actual photographs of the girls themselves so she chose a metaphorical representation:
” For the Chibok girls, I knew I wanted to do something that would visually represent their absence. I really didn’t want to photograph the rallies and protests; those images would be more about the protesters than the girls. I realized I could photograph the girls by photographing some of their belongings. The idea was simple, but the execution was not. Getting items from the remote town of Chibok to a photo studio in the capital of Abuja was like moving a mountain.
These images aren’t about context; they’re about the objects. I wanted them to appear a bit ghostly, as if appearing from nowhere and floating in space. The black background makes the images placeless—I can’t go to the cell in Raqqa where the hostages were held, nor can I photograph girls who are missing, and so it stands in for my limitations as a photographer.”
Photographing the Unphotographable | The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/glenna-gordon-photographing-unphotographable (accessed August 18, 2017).
On a different story, about Ebola, Gordon was presented with the same problem – how to make photographs about a disease which is pretty much invisible. She could have chosen the literal, representational route by using mainly images of those afflicted by the illness; instead she chose a more oblique approach, one which is better at conveying implications and consequences by alluding to them indirectly.
“And then Ebola. That was also just devastating. In many ways, I think I failed as a photographer covering this story. I am happy with some of the images I made, but for the most part I didn’t nail it the way some of my colleagues did. There were several moments where I chose not to take pictures, moments when I chose to stand back and witness rather than to photograph grief; or when I chose to help a sick friend rather than continue with my own work; or to take fewer risks rather than push forward for more gruesome and difficult pictures. Photographically, these were the wrong choices. But, as a person, I’m glad for the choices I made.” Photographing the Unphotographable | The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/glenna-gordon-photographing-unphotographable (accessed August 18, 2017).