By Josh Wagner
There is no photograph that is not a failure. To take a photo of something (and not another thing) belies an implicit ethical relationship to that thing; to be seen is to be loved. The implicit goal of the photograph is to depict a portion of reality in exacting detail, to reproduce the world as it actually is experienced. As Soviet cinematographer Dziga Vertov writes, “Our eyes see very little and very badly … so we invented the camera to penetrate more deeply into the visual world.” Yet, our material encounters with photographs show that they hide more than they reveal, depicting an interpretation rather than unmediated reality. If the photo, specifically the Instagram photo, fails to convey accurately any part of visual reality, what does it convey?
Surrounded by a visual culture, our lives are dominated not only by the ceaseless stream of imagistic stimuli, but also by the photo’s negation of authenticity. Through toothpaste ad campaigns, Instagram feeds and stickered Hydro Flasks, we have become more accustomed to analyzing images than language. Yet, rather that being primarily visual, images are numeric: The basic unit of visual analysis is the photon. Photographs capture light, or rather are “words of light,” packets of information bound up visually. The same molecular photons of light present at last Tuesday’s baseball game were captured by a lens and reproduced on a digital screen. On this basic physical level, the photograph is a set of electrified pixels on a iPhone touchscreen, each pixel qualitatively indistinguishable from the next in the hexadec. The inauthentic work of the photograph unethically renders the radical difference of a life as equivalent to everything else in frame, inscribing the baseball diamond in the same way as the players.
Rather than reality, what the photograph captures is a mathematical set of light impulses which are digitally converted and reproduced across a wireless network. There may be a cosmetic, meaningful correlation between the snap of an iPhone camera and the image it intended to archive; yet, there is no actual connection. While this connection may be meaningful, it is not necessarily real; imaginary concepts, friends and language can all convey meaning without existing. The dense reality of an unfolding baseball scene has been flattened, its impasto voided, each element relegated to an equivalent posture of sameness. No tangible quality separates the pixels that depict the players from those that depict the baseball itself; empty space is depicted equivalently to life.
In fact, theorists of the visual, such as Roland Barthes, connect the work of the camera to material labor, rather than any ocular orifice. In “Camera Lucida,” Barthes describes the sensory mechanism of the photograph as being the finger, not the eye. Rather than the memorialization of a particular moment in time, the photograph is only a physical manifestation of a “dumb,” sightless click of a button –– there is no preservation of visual time. When we take a photograph, we attempt to encapsulate the movement of a moment of everyday life; yet, what we have actually captured instead is a set of physical light conditions present at the time when the photo was taken. The photograph serves as a false negative of a scene of life, a ruined version of reality unrelated to the world of meaning we all inhabit.
Any pretense of taking or presenting an “authentic” photo, exacerbated by the visuality of social media, is premised upon a false sense of the reality of the photograph. The photo is a site of the absence of life, a life converted into equivocal pixels, the ruined trace of what once was yet no longer is. Even before the filters and saturations of VSCO, the photo is already a curated version of reality. We rarely expect photos to be materially real in any experiential sense. Yet, we do expect the factual paraphrase of the photo to be true, its linguistic elements succeeding where its visual ones fail.
“Pics or it didn’t happen” echoes this very sentiment; no matter how heavily edited or manipulated the visual content of a photo is, we still maintain a base expectation of factual veracity; Photoshopped images are, originally, raw photos. Even with the sepia filter, a photo serves as evidence that connects you on your spring break trip to the Eiffel Tower. There are an infinite number of ways of summarizing the linguistic content of an image, none of which satisfactorily captures the totality of an image. Yet, despite this paraphrasable truth, we readily expect the visuality of the photo to be fabricated.
Yet, the basic question remains: What is a photograph? Functionally, photos only exist in the context in which they are seen; the photo lives in the dead space between the eyes of the observer and the flat pixels of a smartphone screen. The photo serves as a space of meaning-generation in which the viewer’s subjective reality is superimposed over the (false) visual content of the photograph.
Knowing that all kinds of Instagram photos are always already engaged in inauthenticity, is there a way to save the photograph? One solution seems to give up on the notion of a realistic, authentic photo, as we often do when scrolling through our Instagram feeds. Understanding the implicit fabrication of the allegedly authentic photo which accurately captures reality allows us to view photos for what they actually are: fictions. Another solution seems to understand the photograph as a site of meaning-generation –– not a mimetic trace of real world events, but an entirely fabricated instantiation of one’s beliefs in a visual, easily digestible form; the photo as allegory. And, a third way of turning the photo towards truth remains: to reject the very nature of the beautifully curated photo and accept an aesthetics of ugliness.
So-called “roadkill” Instagram accounts seek to populate the screens of the world not with wondrously constructed wedding cakes, but with scenes of accidentally murdered animals –– the squirrel run over by a tractor, the raccoon who wandered too close to Escondido Road, the rat lying in Meyer Green for a few hours before Land, Buildings & Real Estate employees arrived on the scene. Doubly serving as a living obituary for fellow inhabitants of the planet, these grotesque and shocking accounts serve to break through the manicured lacquer of the Instagram feed in order to show a side of reality that you’d attempt to avoid off screen. The in-break of the helpless, split animal in the realm of the beautiful transcends the ruin of the image and totally accepts its visual inauthenticity –– through its ruined-ness and refusal to accept the beautiful narrative of Instagram –– to feature an elegy of death.
The photo’s equalization of pixels on your screen might function in the photograph in the same way as during that baseball game, but their tactile effect on you is radically different. For the roadkill Instagram, pure equality is maintained in reverse; the bestial is elevated to the level of the landscape, the unseen. This turning of the equivalent into difference is a moral act. To look at the site of suffering as suffering, without knowledge, interpretation, or judgement is an act of necessary love. What is there to say at the site of death?
Yet, this unethical equalization of the different into the same proliferates on and off screens; the conversion of humanity into pixels is necessarily violent. In disability advocacy, many seek to elevate the status of the differently abled body to the level of the ‘able-bodied’ individual, refusing to recognize the inherent difference in that person’s being; the attempt to equalize all humans and negate all difference. Even contemporary feminist discourse is oriented towards elevating the role of the female in the workplace to that of the male, instead of respecting their radical difference. As Elena Ferrante writes, “The fact is that [the female] can succeed [in the workplace] only if her unconventionality remains consistent with the traditional male culture of command. Why win, then? Merely for the pleasure of winning?”
The equalization of the photograph mirrors other kinds of unethical forms of equalization which persist within the Western philosophical landscape. The relegation of the radical difference of the world to the flat elasticity of the image reduces the human to the plastic. The life of the mind, hidden behind the face of the other, is wholly absent from photographs; it depicts only unfeeling surfaces without any depth. While language also performs this unethical conversion of the real into unreality, the photograph in its visuality pushes this immoral reduction to its extreme.
So, how do we turn the discourse away from the strict divisions of equalization towards an ethics (erotics?) of difference? Outside of the significance that “words of light” produce, there still exist meanings that words cannot convey. Those meanings are not trapped within the register of the visual-linguistic, but in the extra-linguistic apprehension: Sound, desire, touch, fantasy –– senses irreducible to quick descriptions. Scrolling through images on Instagram, the viewer enters the landscape of the photo, synesthetically sensing the world. Using the visual as the touchstone for interacting with these images, the viewer engages with a web of associations provoked by the encounter with the external work. These associative understandings intermingle with other viewers’ creating, “a thing of beauty [that] is a joy forever.” This transubjective encounter removes the authority of interpretation from the viewer, allowing for a shared form of interaction in between viewer and photo. The singular, piercing, all-seeing eye of the viewer has been destroyed by this matrixial sphere of myriad encounters, encounters which surpass the material reality of art.
Contact JH Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.