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An Exploration of Truth, Part 2

What are the limitations that define a photograph’s ability to communicate? The answer to this question is multi-faceted. First, the process of photography is not simply light writing. It is framing, focusing and editing. It is choice. The very act of choice is to select from multiple possibilities and that act of choosing is never completely impartial. Every photographer has a history. They have a role in the society they photograph. Both their history and their role play a part in the creation of an image. Both affect their point of view. Both affect what is seen. In his book, “The Photograph,” Graham Clarke writes,

First, we must remember that the photograph is

itself the product of a photographer. It is always

the reflection of a specific point of view, be it

aesthetic, polemical, political, or ideological. [1]

Documentary photographers seek to be observers, to remain detached from the scene before them and to be non-participants. But the very presence of a photographer in a place changes it. It gives that moment an importance it wouldn’t otherwise have. In his,

Understanding a Photograph,” John Berger states,

Photographers bear witness to a human choice being

exercised in a given situation. A photograph is a result

of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording

that this particular event or this particular object has

been seen. [2]

There is a relationship between the subject and the photographer in every photograph taken. A viewer may not immediately sense this relationship but its presence is there and the meaning of the subject is altered.

In the visual language of photography, the subject is the figure within the boundaries of the photograph from which meaning is derived. The meaning is further informed by the relationship the subject has to its context, the environment it inhabits. A photographer becomes a part of that environment and in turn becomes a part of the context that gives the subject meaning. Other components surrounding a subject such as setting or time of day provide further context. For example, let us examine an image of an apple. The apple is sitting in a basket on a table in a kitchen. There is other fruit in the basket, oranges, bananas and lemons. From these other figures we get a sense of scale as we compare the apple to the them and eventually to the basket. The context of the kitchen gives us the impression the apple is for food; it is meant to be eaten. By putting the apple in relation to these contexts we gain more information about it as a subject.

What then happens when such signifiers as the basket and other fruits are taken out? What we get is a photograph more like Edward Weston’s image of a pepper. “Pepper,” is a simple black and white photograph. The pepper, dramatically lit, is the only figure in the image. It fills the space of the photograph. The image has become about the beauty of the pepper and the richness of the smooth skin.

Which photograph represents the truth, the one where the apple is seen as food or the one that shows the subject as an object of beauty? Can both be true at the same time? Each of these photographs focuses on a specific aspect of its subject to highlight and communicate. It is as though in describing a person who is both shy and talkative, we choose only one characteristic, talkative, to tell someone. A truth has been told, that the person is indeed talkative. What about the other characteristic? What has happened to that truth? Our image of the person is incomplete in relation to the reality.


[1] Clarke, Graham. The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997

[2] Berger, John. Understanding a Photograph. New York: Aperture Foundation, 2013


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