What photographs tell us

“If any of the things we see don’t suit us, guess who is to blame? It’s never us, it’s always the photographer. It’s never the fact that we want to see certain things, it’s always that someone else is not showing us what we want to see.” Joerg Colberg – Colin Pantall on what photographs tell us

Colin Pantall and Joerg Colberg both recently wrote interesting posts on what photographs tell the viewer and how they do so. Analyzing two well-known photos of apparently disinterested observers in the middle of crises, Colin Pantall investigates how photos work to inform preconceived and simple narratives in the viewer’s apprehension. If the viewer is looking for hip, young New Yorkers unaffected by the attacks on September 11, that can also be seen in Thomas Hoepker’s photo. If the viewer wants to see a diverse group talking about the events of the day, that can be seen, too, as one of the subjects of the photo suggests. Joerg Colberg continues the thread, suggesting that we should approach all photographs by understanding what role the subjects of those photos are expected to play in such “simplistic narratives.” Both posts are well worth a read.

We’ve already had the debate this year on the reading of photographs to fit into easy narratives with Samuel Aranda’s World Press Photo 2012-winning photo of a Yemeni mother comforting an injured man. Some saw a Western photographer shoehorning Christian ideology on a Muslim and Middle Eastern scenario; others saw a beautiful and heartbreaking devotion of mother/woman taking part in revolutionary struggle. For what it’s worth, the woman in the photo found out about the photo via facebook and thought it supported the revolution and showed that Yemenis were not extremists.