Can Images Think?

It is perfectly legitimate to ask the following question: How can an image think?

And the answer, which should come as no surprise to the reader, is that images cannot think.

However, the power of images is such that we need to think very carefully about the many different ways in which we relate to them. For example, when we say, “that is not a picture of me,” are we claiming that the picture is not a likeness or that the image cannot contain or express the subjective sense that we have of ourselves? Do we expect the image to contain, hold or embrace who we are?


The most famous portrait of Winston Churchill.

Let's explore the following example. A photographer snaps an image of Jane and when Jane sees it, the photographer says, “I took that photo of you!” It appears as if the image can not only stand in for Jane, but will be used by the photographer to illustrate Jane’s appearance to a variety of different spectators, including her family.


This is an image found on the Internet. What does it mean to say that?

In a sense, the image separates itself from Jane and becomes an autonomous expression, a container with a label and a particular purpose. For better, or for worse, the photo speaks of Jane and often, for her.

The photograph of Jane is scanned into a computer and then placed onto a web site. It is also e-mailed to friends and family. Some of Jane’s relatives print off the image and others place it in a folder of similar photos, a virtual photographic album.

In all of these instances, Jane travels from one location to another and is viewed and reviewed in a number of different contexts. At no point does anyone say, “this is not a picture of Jane.” So, one can assume that a variety of viewers are accepting the likeness and find that the photo reinforces their subjective experience of Jane as a person, friend and relative.

The photograph of Jane becomes part of the memory that people have of her and when they look at the photo a variety of feelings are stirred up that have more to do with the viewer than Jane. Nevertheless, Jane appears to be present through the photo and for those who live far away from her, the photograph soon becomes the only way that she can be seen and remembered.

Picture this scene. The photograph is on a mantel and when Jane’s mother walks by, she stares at it and kisses it. Often, when Jane’s mother is lonely, she speaks to the image and in a variety of ways thinks that the image speaks back to her. Jane’s mother knows that the photograph cannot speak and yet, there is something about Jane’s expression that encourages the mother to transform the image from a static representation to something far more complex.

It is as if the language of description that usually accompanies a photograph cannot fully account for its mystery. It is as if the photograph exceeds the boundaries of its frame and brings forth a dialogue that encourages a break in the silence that usually surrounds it.

Where does this power come from? It cannot simply be a product of our investment in the image. To draw that conclusion would be to somehow mute the very personal manner in which the image is internalized and the many ways in which we make it relevant to ourselves.

Could it be that we see from the position of the image? Do we not have to place ourselves inside the photograph in order to transform it into something that we can believe in? Aren’t we simultaneously witnesses and participants? Don’t we gain pleasure from knowing that Jane is absent and yet so powerfully present? Isn’t this the root of a deeply nostalgic feeling that overwhelms the image and brings forth a set of emotions that cannot be located simply in memory?

What would happen if I or someone else were to tear up the photograph? The thought is a difficult one. It somehow violates a sacred trust. It also violates Jane. Yet, if the photo were simply a piece of paper with some chemicals fixed upon its surface, the violence would appear to be nothing. How does the image exceed its material base?

This question cannot be answered without reflecting upon the history of images and the growth and use of images in every facet of human life. Long before we understood why, images formed the basis upon which human beings defined their relationship to experience and to space and time. Long before there was any effort to translate information into written language, humans used images to communicate with each other and with a variety of imaginary creatures, worlds and gods. The need to externalize an internal world, to project the self and one’s thoughts into images was and is as fundamental as the act of breathing. Life would not and could not have continued without some way of creating images to bear witness to the complexities of the human experience. This wondrous ability, the magic of which surrounds us from the moment that we are born, is a universal characteristic of every culture and every social and economic formation. We know that this is the case with language. We need to fully understand and accept the degree to which it is the same with images.

Images are one of the crucial ways in which the world becomes real and it should come as no surprise to discover that words on a page are also images, although of a sort that is different from photos.

It is therefore the case that images are one of the most fundamental grounds upon which we build our notions of [embodiment]( It is for that reason that images are never simply enframed by their content. The excess is a direct result of what we do with images as we incorporate them into our identities and our emotions. Images speak to us because to see is at one and same time to be within and outside of the body. We use images as a prop to construct and maintain the legitimacy of sight. It is as if sight could not exist without the images that we surround ourselves with and as if the activities of seeing are co-dependent with the translations and representations that we produce of the world around us.

We need perhaps to consider changing the ways in which we relate to objects in general. Bruno Latour the great French writer has commented on this issue at length and will be the subject of my next blog entry.