Sunday, May 6, 2007

Photographs as Symbols: Part 1

In the weeks since my last post I have been ruminating on the quote from Joseph Campbell. It is a dense piece of writing which could take a great deal of unpacking, but I mean here to focus on one aspect of it, the relationship between symbol and history.

In Campbell’s language, symbol is defined as an image that has a life of its own, intrinsically alive within a culture, and operating outside of the conventions of history, science and biography. Campbell seems to think that this function is largely dead in the West as we have turned away from myth in favor of the factual and verifiable “truth.” He advocates a return to myth by looking back into the past, far enough that the boundaries between verifiable history and myth start to blur, and there he finds stories that operate alive and independent of history.

I would argue that this symbolic function that Campbell seeks in the deep past is currently active in the west, but is operating largely in the collective unconscious, and the field of photojournalism is an excellent demonstration of this operation.

Photojournalism has as its basic function a duty to report “factual” and “true” events. But, the very nature of photography means that still pictures are capable of creating an entire experience crafted out of the raw materials that the photographer had to work with. Those materials are the real events that take place somewhere in the world. But once those events are recorded, the pictures take on a life of their own that has a role to play in the world independent of the event or even of their own historical accuracy.

To examine how this takes place, we need to start with photojournalism’s interaction with the written word. Much has been written on the need for photographs to have context and captions to establish their meaning. It is a requirement that images are accompanied by written information that establishes and verifies the factual accuracy of the visual content. In response I would point out that the images that rise to the top of the field in part defy this need for context. They visually operate in ways that are independent of the historical information and context of the photograph.

Once we encounter a great photograph, one of the first things that happens is we ask a series of questions that involve a variation of who, what, when, where, how, why, etc. The questions are primarily engaged in an effort to categorize the photograph, and they are proposed by the individual ego, the part of the personality that wants to organize, contain, and maintain an established social order. But there is another aspect of the self that is at work here, and that is the unconscious, which has little need for the categorization of the work, but instead directly engages the photographs independent of history. While the ego is trying to contain the experience of the image by placing it in a category of some kind, the unconscious is directly relating to the visual content and has no concern for whether the image is “fact” or “fiction,” or whether it belongs to any other category, but sees the symbol instead. This symbolic function operates independently of the factual information and may even operate in opposition to it. Not all photojournalism rises to this level of aesthetic accomplishment, but we can find a pre-selected group of images that often do in the winners of the World Press Photo awards.

Over 80,000 entries each year are submitted for the awards and the images that make the final cut are remarkable indeed. If these can be seen as representations of what the industry of photojournalism was looking for in that individual year, we can assume that they are representations of how the field operates.

For a visual exercise in what I’m saying, follow the below link to the WPP Award website, and navigate through the winning photographs without reading any captions.

Take your time.

Discipline your eyes to focus only the images and the navigation links to the lower right of the page. Ego may complain a lot about this. We are deeply concerned with categorizing visual experiences, but I encourage you to let the visual experience take the lead and to let ego grumble in the background. If you do this, by the time you look at all the winners for the year, you will see another type of experience emerge, one that I believe is happening in viewers anyway, but without much conscious awareness.

Focus on the actual content of the images, and underneath that, the drama, the tragedy, the theatricality, the irony, the absurdity, the apocalypse--all the varieties of inner experience that the images evoke. What distinguishes these images is their inner content. There are hundreds of thousands of other images that have the same or similar "factual" content. These images have risen to the top based on something else.

The below link will take you to the winning image for the 2007 World Press Photo awards.

World Press Photo awards