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the photograph as evidence: between identity and subject? | Balsas: aktualios ir medijų kultūros žurnalas
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    the photograph as evidence: between identity and subject?

    | 2006-09-30 | 11:29
    temos: ENGLISH

    It is usual to consider photography as being a technical and author-less activity. Its apparently endless reproducibility violates the historical nature of a “work of art.” Its faithfulness to the human eye – the camera as the prosthesis of an organ – makes it an irreplaceable servant for producing reality. Why do photographs speak to us? Could photography stand for “Identity Discourse” that certifies and transmits the identity of the things/past represented?

    Or, would it rather be classified as “Subject Discourse” that expresses actions in a particular way by freezing them as a flat image? These questions are motivated by the ideas of two French philosophers, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. In this short essay I will briefly discuss Barthes’ theory of photography, which, to my mind, underscores the discursive function of the Author. Hence I will argue that Foucault’s ideas about the Author as a principle of discursive control can equally well be applied to the discourse of photography. In doing so, I am not going to talk about photography as an artistic phenomenon, but rather as a media that functions and is co-produced in the networks of social relations.

    I will talk about photography as a mirror and a certificate of reality, whose “realism” is both used and produced by the institutions of power and control. I will argue that the presence of the “Author” or “subject, who certifies the truth” is necessary for guaranteeing the representational powers of a photograph. Along with Foucault, I define the Author as an empowered subject, representative of an institution of power, finally – both metaphorically and literary – a policeman, who clicks the shutter button. This subject in his/her personal representation of the power system is the source of “truthfulness” of photography. He or she certifies that what is locked in the picture “was really there and real.” Thus the “reality effect” of a photograph resides not in its own semiotic system or its technology, as Barthes would claim, but in the agency of an empowered subject. Photography is able to serve to identify the represented things/individuals only because it also represents the underlying agency. In other words, photography is perhaps as much about subjectivity, as about identity.[i]

    Photography as Evidence?

    In his sensitive and beautifully poetic book, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes discusses photography as a specific system of representation. According to Barthes, photography is visual in perception and instant in its technique. It demands reality to “be there” and manages to lock the past, through a split-second click, in a chemical reaction, later crystallized on paper. From Barthes’ perspective, photography could be understood as an entire discourse on “identity,” which demonstrates and proves how a thing looks/ed like, even though not guarantying a complete match, as he warns us.

    Technologically, photography is characterized by mechanical reproduction, thus it tends to be anonymous in a sense that there is no “original,” lying behind and certifying the “copies.” In his essay, Walter Benjamin says that photography succeeded “to free the hand of the most important artistic functions” and empowered the eye. Because of its mechanical nature and reproducibility, photography undermines the concept of original or unique existence, authenticity (Benjamin 1935: 2). It is also democratic, accessible for the wide use of amateur individuals. According to Bourdieu, “even when the production of the picture is entirely delivered over to the automatism of the camera, the taking of the picture is still a choice involving aesthetic and ethical values” (Bourdieu 1990: 6).

    In other words, photography empowers the eye and this eye is far from being innocent. Here, the eye makes not only an aesthetic judgment, as Bourdieu has indicated in his Photography: The Middle-Brow Art, but also functions as an instrument of subjectification and subjectivisation (concerning the latter, see studies of the construction of exoticism of colonial subjects). It is precisely at this point the subjective dimension is revealed in photography. Photography is not only a chemical or digital process, but also a performative act, constituted by and constituting the social relations.

    Let me tell a story that I have heard from a young Japanese woman who came to Sweden to do her PhD in media studies at Malmö arts academy. Let’s call her Miu. The story is rather illustrative and nearly “too closely matching the theory” and this is exactly why I felt even more tempted to include it. What makes it “too good”? What makes it evidence of the theory?

    Miu was born in Tokyo, studied in London and somehow ended up doing a PhD in Malmö (an industrial town in southern Sweden whose identity is defined by being close to Copenhagen). She shared an apartment with a Swedish student in a nice, quiet area. One evening Miu came back home from the academy just as usual, and discovered that the apartment door was not locked. She found it strange, because her flatmate had left in the morning to visit her parents in the north of Sweden. Yet she dared to open the door – bumping into two big policemen standing in the hall. They started to speak to her in Swedish and after they finished their lengthy talk Miu said that she did not understand Swedish.

    “Oh,” said one policeman, “so you speak only English?”

    “No,” said Miu, “not only English. I also speak Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and French.”

    “Well, but this is what I mean, that you speak only English,” reacted the man in uniform.

    After this short linguistic discussion, the policemen explained to her that they had received a call from her neighbors who had reported that there was a dead female body in this apartment – which the neighbors saw through a window. They investigated the apartment together and, naturally, could not find any dead body there. But they did find a life-size colored nude photograph, standing against the wall in front of the window. Obviously the neighbors noticed some “real looking body,” which was “not moving” and “naked” and decided that “this body must be dead” and reported to the police.

    What happened next?

    Miu had to stand next to the photograph of the nude and was photographed by the policemen, since they needed evidence that the “immobile woman” was “two dimensional and thus not real,” and Miu was “three dimensional and real,” thus no crime was involved. They needed a photograph as evidence that there were no dead bodies, only one representation, leaning against the wall.

    I found the story to be quite funny and ridiculous. Yet its ridiculous part is not to be seen in the experience of a high-tech metropolitan girl (Miu writes her doctoral dissertation about contemporary art on mobile phones) in a provincial town, where the neighbors not only openly stare at your windows, but also are unable to distinguish between a real person and a still image. There is more to it. The ridiculous and paradoxical part is the evidence taking. What the two honest policemen got was a picture of two women, and both of them were two-dimensional.

    What was the source of the certainty that one woman photographed was real and another was not? What is that makes a photograph into evidence?

    Is there something in the logic of photography which makes it a perfect instrument for constructing evidence? Photography, according to Barthes, is a specific system of representation: “Photography’s Referent is not the same as the referent of other systems of representation”… “photographic referent” [is] not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing.” Or: “in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there” (Barthes 1993: 76). In this way, for Barthes, a photograph is evidence per se.

    But what is the instance certifying the evident-ness of photography? To answer this question I would like to turn to Foucault. It is not only the presence of a “thing” or “human being” in front of the lens in the process of photograph taking, which guarantees “the superimposition of reality and the past,” to put it into words of Barthes. The presence of the one who takes the photograph in some cases may be more important. I will argue that it is the institutionalized power (in the status of a policeman) which certifies the reality effect or evidential nature of the photograph in the Miu case.

    The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) defines “evidence” as “ground for belief,” “manifestation, display,” and “information … that is given in a legal investigation, to establish the fact or point in question.” Thus, evidence is something which is unquestionable and forms the ground for all other questions.

    Photography, according to Barthes, is “an art of the Person: of identity, of civil status, of … the body’s formality.” Its truthfulness and power of certification lies within its seeming “unmediatedness”: “the fact was established without method” (Barthes 1993: 79-80). Facts, as we know very well, are not innocent in themselves. They are constituted by different perspectives and thus open to different interpretations (Feyerabend 1993). However, and in a peculiar way they manage to retain their “facticity” in the process of deliberation.

    The story told above demonstrates how a photograph was twice taken as evidence, as a certification of reality (of a dead body and of a living body). Barthes invests a lot of effort in discussing the meaning that he sees inherent in photographic technology. But nowadays, in the age of digital re-mastering, one can never be sure if the object “was there,” even if picture looks very much like a “classical photograph.” Neither technology, nor the perception of the viewer, could guarantee the reality effect. The viewer may be uneducated, naïve or simply wrong, as in the case of the watchful neighbor. What, then, is left as ground for evidence?

    I think it is probably the act of photograph-taking which certifies the picture’s claim to reality. The power situation in the act of photographing constitutes and legitimizes the reality effect of the photograph. Perhaps the presence of a photographer is the instance that guarantees that “a photograph is an emanation of referent” (Barthes). Though easily reproducible, photographs do not appear out of the blue. And thus there is always personal responsibility involved in the act of photographing. An entire legislative body has developed around the issues of by whom, where, and under which conditions people can be photographed. The perfect cases in question are paparazzi or pornographic photos.

    Thus, in both legislation and security systems, photographs are perceived – and constructed – as a part of “Author discourse.” According to Foucault, the institution of the Author is one of the principles of control over discourse. The Author is the instance that guarantees the truthfulness of image or text. In this paradigm, texts or images come to be judged by relying on the intentions of the Author (Foucault 1986).

    The policemen in the case discussed acted twice as instances of certification. In both cases they ex-posed their power to control the language, both verbal and visual.

    It was their knowledge, which certified what languages could potentially exist/be relevant to the situation (“you speak only English”). It was their authority, which certified that one of the two dimensional women in a final photograph was real, and another merely a picture. Their subjectivity was the instance of power, which through both linguistic and pictorial representation constituted the subject of Miu: a foreigner and a real human being.

    I also thought that this story greatly entertains us as intellectuals. It soothes us by showing that the theories we are fond of, such as those of Barthes and Foucault, are so easily applicable, though not entirely sufficient if taken separately, to real life situations. The existence of applicability and complementarity emotionally satisfies us as rational and orderly subjects.

    And yet, would this story be less fun if we did not know about these theories?

    I would dare to say yes. The fact that the Author of the story, Miu, is a postgraduate media student herself constitutes an interesting part. Being expert in theories of representation, suddenly she became an inhabitant of one of these theories. Like Alice in Wonderland, I was dragged into this world together with her as she told me the story.

    But I was not really there and I have not even seen any of those photographs. I have never met those policemen – actually, I have not met any Swedish policeman in person (only on the phone). I have never been to Malmö. The only ground to make this story evidence for the theory was to rely on a witness, on a subject/Author.

    I did not need photographs, but I badly needed Miu.


    Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. London: Vintage, 1993.
    Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935). http://www.student.cs.uwaterloo.ca/~cs492/Benjamin.html
    Bourdieu, Pierre.
    Photography: A Middle-brow Art. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996.
    Feyerabend, Paul. Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. London: Verso, 1993.
    Foucault, Michel. “The Order of Discourse.” in The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986.
    Oxford English Dictionary. Available online, <http://www.oed.com>

    [i] Here I would like to refer to the very useful distinction between identity and subjectivity by Irina Sandomirskaja (lectures from the course Critical Terms for Cultural Studies, 2003).

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