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Sabeena Mathayas

Professor Baidik Bhattacharya

M.A. English – 2011

Hans Raj College, University of Delhi

28 March 2011

2660 words approximately

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain

relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power. A now notorious first

fall into alienation, habituating people to abstract the world into printed words, is supposed to

have engendered that surplus of Faustian energy and psychic damage needed to build modern

organic societies. But print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it

into a mental object, than photographic images, which now provide most of the knowledge

people have about the look of the past and the reach of the present. What is written about a

person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like

paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so

much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Susan Sontag (b. 1933), U.S. essayist. "In Plato's Cave," On Photography, Farrar, Straus


Edward Said’s Orientalist discourse organized and elaborated the modern parameters of

representation and knowledge as the elemental characteristics of the construction of a colonial

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order – not just through the ideological (dis)orientation toward a global economic-political order

but also through the imbricated arrangement of idiom and imagery that organized and produced

this political reality. Expatiating this through the features of essentialism (unchanging racial or

cultural essences) particularly in opposition to the west and an otherness marked by

fundamental absences (of reason, movement, order, democracy etc) further registered and

reinforced the distinctive definitions that marked the mastery of the colonial world in cultural


The resultant plethora of knowledge and forms of knowledge creation that accompanied the

unabated Western expansion since the sixteenth century accorded a need to address and

translate the problem of incommensurability by finding common denominators between

disparate modes of knowledge both within and between societies and cultural traditions. It

involved an understanding of the world as a coda of images and objects whose very

organization was believed to evoke a larger meaning or reality. Conditioning these perspectives

were the platforms of exhibitions, museums, memorials, media and technology which worked

within the ironic duality of creating palpable distinctions between subjects and objects ‘in

themselves’ and their ‘meanings’, what Heidegger called dis-positions and being seen as a

natural progression toward a universalizing cultural historiography.

This intizam-al-manzar – a constitution of a massively effective organization of views – across

imperialist narratives, geopolitical spaces and positions was reinforced by the simultaneous

emergence of photography; itself a operating with a conflicted dependency on technology,

discourse and institutional authority for validation. But due to the indexical empirical quality of

the medium, the gaze was a scientific, objective medium of record; the assumption being that

the camera didn’t lie and photographers merely documented what they saw. But photographs of

empire did not simply deliver information; they communicated and translated the colonizing eye,
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domesticated landscapes, translated, ‘unknown spaces into familiar scenes…’ Photography

became the inalienable tool to ‘collect the world’.

The documentary photograph today has evolved from a collector to an assimilator. Under the

overriding rubric of Globalization, it caters to the generic contemporary term’s referent of the

meta-narrative of homogenous and interconnected ideologies, policies and practices supporting

trans- and supra- national flows of capital. This paper attempts to explore traditional theories of

documentary photography as it conditions perspective through the creation and sustenance of

myth and cultural emblems leading up to simulacrum that has overwhelmed a direct relation and

recognition, of and with ‘reality’. On challenging the assumed role of the photograph as indexical

evidence and as a modest witness, especially in the documentation of war, the new single

epidermis of world civilization is rendered a shallow veneer, concealing a variety of culture, of

peoples, of religious worlds, of historical traditions and historically formed attitudes, all of which

in a sense, lie beneath it.


The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious


Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), German critic, philosopher. repr. In Illuminations, ed. Hannah

Arendt (1968). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, sect. 13 (1936)

Walter Benjamin breaks the photographic medium away from the debates of art, mimesis, style

and content and provides a socio historical perspective in his essay A Little History of

Photography. Embedding the photograph firmly within economic, social, technological and

political practices, he describes the creation of ‘image worlds’ within a photograph crediting it

with the potential to open the optical unconscious of the viewer and in so doing, open the doors

to a reform of perception that might lead to social change.

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The beholder feels an irresistible compulsion to search a picture for the tiny spark of

contingency, the here and now, with which reality has, so to speak, seared through the image-

character of the photograph, to find the inconspicuous place where, within the essence [Sosein]

of that long past minute, the future nests till today… For it is another nature that speaks to the

camera rather than to the eye; ―other‖ above all in the sense that a space informed by human

consciousness gives way to one informed by the unconscious”

The examination of photography as the representative form of the bourgeoisie of the nineteenth

century marks the shift attuned to collective concerns and collective power. In confronting the

polemical issue of art as photography and photography as art, Benjamin pointedly notes that

freed from political and social interest, photography becomes ‘creative’ and serves only to

confirm things as they are. In truth, photography’s claim to be art was contemporaneous with its

emergence as a commodity. Photography could not only represent commodities, it could

reproduce and disseminate their representations to ensure market circulation turning ‘segments

of the field of optical perception into saleable commodities.’ These segments in the perceptive

field did not have to be an object in the physical sense of the term; it could be a concept, a

belief, a practice or a way of experiencing the world. Benjamin believed that the hidden capacity

of photography lay in its power of association – in its performative, sensory ability to establish

and embody reality and possibility. Perhaps it is this aspect that lent a political emergency in

Benjamin’s attempt to develop something like a media theory in the 1930s.

If fascism could aestheticize politics and even war, communism was bound to respond by

politicizing art.

Carrying the performative effects of photographic practice to an extreme, the post modernist

notion of simulacrum becomes particularly significant. In the stage of production, photography is

determined intrinsically by three factors: the photographic equipment itself (the camera, the
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viewfinder, the lens, the editing technology etc), the discourses that support photography and

contextualize them and the institutions that employ and deploy the photographic equipment and

the discourse surrounding it, thereby legitimizing the image with its authority. In essence the

continuous interaction of these factors constitutes the photographic episteme – the horizon of

influence that determines a photographer’s situation, function and perceptive capacity. But this

also comprises a crisis of representation with the gaze bound to and within a prescribed set of

possibilities and embedded in a system of conventions and limitations. The photograph could

therefore only work as a subordinate to the reifying process – operating through a reinscription

of established modes of thinking, drawing from a culture’s archive of myth and canonic genres

and dependant on analogies.

Consequently, the late capitalist age is the age of simulacra addicted to images, stereotypes,

pseudo events and spectacles. The question is not one of preferring representations over

realities as much as it is the transformation of ‘reality’ into representations; a set of discourses

without the idea of a referent.

Additionally the arrangement of photographic imagery in post modern hyperspaces –

architecture characterized by vast compartmentalized yet homogenized zones linked with

disembodied globally operating corporate networks – inspire both pleasurable awe and

disorienting vertigo. These consumptive spaces are extensions of a cultural insularity which

dissolve the critical distance required for perceptual analysis – a walling-in of discourses and

optical conscious. This distancing from experience and its mediated representation that is

complicated in war photography and its function in national identity and memory.


―We often photograph events that are called ‗news‘, " Cartier-Bresson told Byron Dobell of

"Popular Photography" magazine in 1957, "but some tell the news step by step in detail as if
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making an accountant's statement. Such news and

magazine photographers, unfortunately, approach

an event in a most pedestrian way. It's like reading

the details of the Battle of Waterloo by some

historian: so many guns were there, so many men

were wounded - you read the account as if it were

an itemization. But on the other hand, if you read

Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma, you're inside

the battle and you live the small, significant

details... Life isn't made of stories that you cut into

slices like an apple pie. There's no standard way of

approaching a story. We have to evoke a situation,

Figure 1: Robert Capa © International Center of
a truth. This is the poetry of life's reality."
FRANCE. Arras. March 23rd, 1945. An American
Parachutist preparing to board the plane for the jump
across the Rhine River.
Like all narrating industries the press too reports

events within an enduring professional and bureaucratic system. Its practice of telling stories

‘serves as education, as a validation of culture, as wish fulfillment and as a force for conformity.

Reports differ from the experiences of the ones who’ve suffered and the description is often

what editors hope will suit the preferences of their readers. The use of documentary

photographs in the press does not try to alter conventions so much as to serve them. What

distinguishes documentary from fiction is the way that viewers read and engage with the texts

and images, the assumptions they make about them and what they expect from them. It feeds

other kinds of knowledge; and is most likely to appeal to a presumed consensus of national

identity. The role of the press and the function of photojournalism was to address and confirm

the beliefs of the ‘general public’ – itself a fiction used by journalists to describe their audiences.
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An emblematic image of the

Spanish Civil war was

Robert Capa’s Falling

Soldier or Death of a

Republican Soldier

reputedly taken at the

moment the subject was

shot. The debate

surrounding the
Figure 2: Robert Capa © International Center of Photography

SPAIN. Cordoba front. 1936. Death of a Loyalist Militiaman. contentious image

concerns its authenticity. Staging the kind of thing that happens in battles undermines the

credibility of documentary photography as a source of indexical evidence about events. The

photograph though gruesome contributes to a sense of war as sacrifice. It proposed that the war

remained an arena of individual honor and bravery and in the furthering of the cause, soldiers

died quickly but aesthetically. Images of the glories of war did not simply reveal a higher ideal of

civilization as intended but also hinted that the management of war was firmly established. The

archaic forms and idealization remain potent in war publicity, designed to produce the particular

knowledge that feeds nationalism and encourages viewers to be sanguine about mass murder.

In themselves, photographs have no identity. They are meaningful only as currency: the value of

images to stand as evidence or register a truth depends on the authority of those who deploy

them and guarantee their authenticity. The material facts of war can stand as evidence only by

studying how photographs are used as evidence. The problem of photographic evidence rests

not on a natural or existential fact but on a social, historical process.

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The historical record and the status of any type of evidence are always open to question: the

relationship between representation and the world is indeterminate. Both factual and fictive

accounts are deliberate acts of inscription: they both mediate reality and neither is the same as

imagination, experience or direct observation. Stephen Greenblatt demonstrates that despite

the blurring of boundaries between them it matters morally and ethically which we are

confronting. Our belief in language‘s capacity for reference is part of our contract with the world:

the contract may be playfully suspended or broken altogether, but no abrogation is without

consequences and there are circumstances where the abrogation is unacceptable. The

existence or absence of a real world, real body, real pain, makes a difference. Greenblatt’s

quote could be rewritten to refer to photography since its indexical relation to what-has-been in

the world remains part of our understanding of the medium. Though the relation of photography

to reality is problematic, the use of photography is intimately linked with the ethics and politics of



Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.

Dorothea Lange, Documentary Photographer

Photography has a malleable relationship with time and memory – and therefore with history –

allowing it to serve as a vector for fundamental concerns over national identity. In the exhibition

of documentary war photographs in memorials, retrospectives, archives and museums the gaze

of the viewer is filtered by the juxtaposition of an authoritarian aesthetic space and a distancing

from the temporal context of the photograph itself, which encourages a deliberately selective

perception – a shared narrative essence through the contingencies of time.

On an abstract level, the exhibition of a consciously selected imagery of conflict as part of a

national becoming may also be said to promote the transnational idea that a shared knowledge
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of terror and death forces us to recognize that no one nation stands alone: one nation’s history

always entails the perspective of others. German historian Michael Geyer portrays the

commemoration of death as work on the bond of human solidarity, mindful of a genocidal past,

and insists that this commemoration is a necessary element in the renewal of historical

consciousness. By this light, national identity and representations of that identity in photographic

exhibitions will necessarily engage other nations and other images from around the world. In

this sense, there can only be one story.

But it is important to stress that neither photography, not national identity, nor time is a stable

element. Photography can chronicle public time, refer only to private memories, or suppress

temporality in favor of strict formalism. Collectives, national and otherwise, can share global

chronologies and structures, or they can mark their differences in time and form. Time can serve

as the denominator of national development or it can be excluded from accounts of national

essence. Stable definitions of these elements are possible only in particular circumstances

where ideology deftly masks its own assumptions. The triangulation between photography,

national identity and time is what makes photography exhibitions charged with possibilities and

their curatorship a political as well as aesthetic act.


The invention of photography provided a radically new picture-making process—a process

based not on synthesis but on selection. The difference was a basic one. Paintings were

made—constructed from a storehouse of traditional schemes and skills and attitudes—but

photographs, as the man on the street put, were taken.

Jean Szarkowski (b. 1925), French photographer, critic. The Photographer's Eye, introduction,

Museum of Modern Art (1966).

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Mass media or Social media, as the product of a pluralized world, has evolved from the

synthesis and distribution of technologies of information, communication and image production.

The mediation of gaze remains inherent in the photographic practice but the circulation of

images, especially of conflict, ‘taken‘ by ‘the man on the street‘ interact independently with

members of a virtual space and resonate with the notion of an imagined community as a mass

mediated collectivity where members may not all know each other, but where each shares the

idea of a common belonging.

In a sense the mass media has progressively colonized the cultural and ideological sphere. As

social groups and classes live increasingly fragmented and sectionally different lives, the mass

media are more and more responsible (a) for providing the basis on which groups construct an

‘image’ of the lives, meanings, practices and values of other groups and classes; (b) for

providing the images, representations and ideas around which the social totality, composed all

these separate and fragmented pieces, can be coherently grasped as a whole.

Works Cited

The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology; Edited by: Donald Preziosi; Published by: Oxford

University Press, 2009

The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media –

Walter Benjamin; Edited by: Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin;

Translated by: Edmund ]ephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, and Others; Published

by: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London,

England 2008

A "Courageous and Magnanimous Creation"; Author(s): Vaclav Havel; Source: Harvard

Review, No. 9 (Fall, 1995), pp. 103-112; Published by: Harvard Review
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Review: Postmodern Culture: The Ambivalence of Fredric Jameson; Author(s): Vincent B.

Leitch; Source: College Literature, Vol. 19, No. 2, Cultural Studies: Theory Praxis Pedagogy

(Jun.,1992), pp. 111-122; Published by: College Literature

Photography, National Identity, and the "Cataract of Times": Wartime Images and the Case of

Japan; Author(s): Julia A. Thomas; Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 103, No. 5

(Dec., 1998), pp. 1475-1501; Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the

American Historical Association

Review: War, Photography and Evidence; Author(s): John Taylor; Source: Oxford Art Journal,

Vol. 22, No. 1 (1999), pp. 158-165; Published by: Oxford University Press

Anthropology and Mass Media; Author(s): Debra Spitulnik; Source: Annual Review of

Anthropology, Vol. 22 (1993), pp. 293-315; Published by: Annual Reviews

Photography and Society: Icon Building in Action; Author(s): R. Srivatsan; Source: Economic

and Political Weekly, Vol. 26, No. 11/12, Annual Number (Mar., 1991), pp.771-773+775-

777+779-781+783-788; Published by: Economic and Political Weekly

Modern Witnesses: Foreign Correspondents, Geopolitical Vision, and the First World War;

Author(s): Matthew Farish; Source: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New

Series, Vol. 26, No. 3 (2001), pp. 273-287; Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The

Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)