ambiguity in transit

All good photography is social. At a minimum, good photography requires two parties: the person who shoots the photo and the person who looks at it.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying a photographer can’t do excellent work in isolation. You can shoot the most astonishing photographs, but like the work of Miroslav Tichý, if nobody ever sees them they’re just a form of wanking (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I’m not talking about photography as an act or the photograph as an object; I’m talking about photography as a mode of communication, as a tool for expression. After all, that’s how most of us use photography, even if all we’re communicating is ‘Dude, look at the cup of coffee I had this morning.’

This is where that ‘social’ business comes in; this is where photography, in my opinion, gets really interesting. Because the viewer isn’t bound by the photographer’s intent. The viewer is free to develop his own meaning from the photo. The photographer might be saying  ‘Dude, look at the cup of coffee I had this morning’ but the viewer might be hearing ‘Lawdy, what a ridiculous wanker.’

I’m not saying anything new here, obviously. I’m sure Susan Sontag had something densely clever to say about the photographer-viewer dialectic. I’m only saying it now because I recently had the unusual (for me, at any rate) and weird experience of being both photographer and viewer of the same image.


As a photographer, this was one of those photos you shoot on instinct. I noticed the guy’s t-shirt as he was walking in my general direction. I had the camera near my eye already, so I looked through the viewfinder, noticed the woman and child, reframed the shot, and snapped the shutter release. It was your basic f/8 and be there shot. A photo originally intended to be about the guy ended up being about the group.

I wasn’t necessarily trying to say anything with this photograph. I brought the camera to my eye because of the guy’s t-shirt, so my immediate motivation was political. But once I was looking through the viewfinder, it became more about the arrangement of elements within the frame (and yeah, at that moment these weren’t ‘people’ to me, they were just compositional elements in motion). The only tension I was interested in at that moment was aesthetic tension.

But a few days later, when I got around to actually looking at the photo, there seemed to be something emotionally disquieting and maybe distressing taking place. I wasn’t evaluating the photo as the maker of the photograph, I was looking at it as viewer — as if I was seeing a photo shot by somebody else. It was an oddly dissociative experience. But I didn’t give it much thought to it until I posted the photo on Instagram and Facebook, and other people reacted to it.

Some folks who saw the photo had interpretations similar to mine — that there was some emotional discord taking place. Others saw the photograph in political terms — either as being pro-Trump or anti-Trump. Here’s a sampling of the comments I received through Facebook, on Instagram, and through emails and texts:

That poor little girl, though. I hope that’s not her father.

Why are you posting pro-trump fotos? Thought you were for Hillary?

the lookon the kid’s face, my god…

That poor child doesn’t stand a chance.

Classic Lib move, presenting Trump supporters as mean angry old white men.

Are they fighting? Was the wife frightend? Did you think aoubt intervening?

Why di I feel sorry for that family?

Is this guy a Trump supporter? I don’t know. Probably. Or he might just be somebody who hates Hillary Clinton. Are these three people together? I’ve no idea. When I shot the photo I had the general impression they were a family unit, but it’s possible they’re unrelated and were just moving in the same general direction at about the same pace. Was this an emotionally strained situation? I don’t know. I didn’t sense it at the time, but again, I only saw these folks for a moment, and in that moment I was focused on shooting the photo.

I don’t know how much of what I experienced as a viewer of this photograph is actually IN the photo and how much I’ve brought TO the photo.

Wim Wenders said, “The most political decision you make is where you direct people’s eyes.” I’m not convinced that’s actually the most political decision you can make, but it IS a political decision. Politics on a very basic level certainly shaped my decision to shoot this photo. And politics has certainly shaped the response to it. But the politics of the act of photography (at least in this case) have nothing to do with the politics of viewing it.

I guess that’s how photography is supposed to work.

4 thoughts on “ambiguity in transit

  1. horns? or halo? Technical question: I’ve often wondered, Greg, as a photographer of people, would you feel it necessary to get permission from your subjects before posting this potent photo?

    (I look forward to each of your well thought out blog posts. Thanks, Irene)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Irene, it depends a lot on the sort of photograph I want to shoot. I’ll sometimes do street portraiture; I’ll see a face or a situation I find interesting and I’ll talk to the person for a while and then ask if I can take their photo. Most often they say yes; sometimes not. Candid street photography, on the other hand, pretty much has to be done without prior permission, otherwise the moment has passed by.

      Do I get permission to post the photos? Yes, if it’s street portraiture; no, if it’s candid street work.

      In the U.S. you don’t need permission to photograph anybody who is out in public. There’s no expectation of privacy when you’re in a public space. Nor do you need permission to SELL that photo — unless it’s going to be used for a commercial purpose. I couldn’t, for example, sell the photo above to somebody who wanted to use it to advertise, say, Trump t-shirts. I could, though, sell it to a magazine as a work of art. In this context, ‘commerce’ is defined more in terms of moving products or services, not in terms of putting a bit of cash in the photographer’s pocket.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.