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An Exploration of Truth, Part 1

Over the next few weeks I will be posting the contents of a paper I wrote for an application that will hopefully result in the continuation of my photographic education. The paper is an exploration into the idea of truth within the confines of a photograph.

The borders of a photograph represent boundaries of time and space. Within those boundaries only so much information can exist. Therefore, when a photograph is taken it captures only a single moment of time and excludes all others. The edges of the photograph further decide what is seen and what is unseen. The result is an exclusion of information and the de-contextualization of the information being communicated. In documentary photography this can create certain problems for the viewer. Namely, can a photograph represent the truth?

In the “Allegory of the Cave,” Plato saw truth as the light, the ultimate wisdom. According to Plato, truth does not exist in the material world we in which live. All we see are shadows, evidence of the reality beyond our sight. These shadows are only partial-truths. In order to see the whole truth Plato believed we must break our bonds from the material world in which we live and move beyond to travel outside the cave.

Plato’s discussion in the “Allegory of the Cave,” is set between Socrates, his teacher and mentor and his brother, Glaucon. Socrates describes people as prisoners chained inside the cave facing a blank wall. Behind them there is a fire. Objects passing before the fire casts shadows upon the blank space. In their confinement these shadows are given names by the prisoners and ultimately become their reality. Plato has Socrates describe how a philosopher is the one who is able to break free from the chains and see the truth of the shadows before him. The other prisoners do not make moves to break free of their imprisonment at first because they prefer to live the life they know. Eventually, though they too follow and discover the light.

The very nature of photography is like the philosopher, to seek the light, to capture it, to bend it, and to record it. The translation of the word photograph from the Greek is ‘light-writing,’ a representation of photography’s technical process. A photographer uses a camera’s mechanics to focus and record light onto a sensitized surface creating what we know as the photograph.

A photographer’s mission in taking photographs is to reveal and inform the viewer about the world we live in. A photographer sees what a viewer may miss and makes it seen. We take photographs to try and capture the light beyond the cave, an attempt at unveiling the truth.

But a photograph is more than just a record of light, it is also a record of shadows. It captures not only the truth, the light beyond the boundaries of the cave but also the shadows, the half-truths that encompass our reality. The confines that exist within the physical space of a photograph, as well as the process of its creation construct a paradigm in which the whole truth cannot exist. A photograph can only be a representation of a partial truth.


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