Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Photographs/History/Meaning

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The beauty of this image is its simplicity. Shot in the 1930's in the midst of the worst depression in American history, this photo is part of a collection available through the US government. I would draw your attention to the signs which surround the men, to the discussion that they are having and to the many possible ways in which we could speculate about the image to imagine their words. What are they looking at? Are they waiting to be picked up or simply hanging out because they are unemployed?

In a photograph published some years ago by the New York Times we see a Bosnian soldier facing the camera and begging for his life. He is a young man. He has curly hair and a smooth face. His arms are outstretched. Behind him stands a Serbian soldier, rifle cocked and ready. As the caption suggests this man’s pleas were answered with his own death. He is staring at the camera as if it will provide him with refuge, as if the photographer will somehow intervene. The photograph cannot anticipate history but the caption can. The prisoner pushes against the camera — he is pleading for help. Yet, without the caption, his “story” and the interpretations which we could make of it, would be entirely circumstantial. In this case, the written word acts as an arbiter for the event and tries to intervene in our interpretation. But even as I say this, the photograph slips away. This anonymous man’s torment is as silent as the paper it was printed on. It would take an imaginative projection on my part to overcome the gaps created by his death as text and as image.

Let me suggest that photographic images neither illustrate thought, nor are thoughts illustrated by the pictorial. Photographic images are silent, blind, unseeing. They don’t listen to us nor do they change when viewed. They are not the source of a magical emanation from which the seeing eye draws inspiration. They rarely display the hand of the photographer who has created them and for the most part leave no traces of the chemistry which has produced them. This is not simply a matter of arbitrariness, of meanings lost and then gained, of part-whole relations which flounder in confusion. Photographs cannot rob the subjects they portray, since photographs never have subjects, men, women and children “imprinted” upon them. What is in play here is the very language which is used to describe and explain the “sight” of an image, the categories, words and labels which have been applied to the miniature worlds we peer into, anthropomorphize and recreate.

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