Regarding Photographs: Reading Photos II

In the previous essay, I introduced a couple of imaginary photographs. The first, an old woman celebrating her birthday with family and friends; the second a photograph of a man seated in a chair, attentive to something out of frame.

Since most people reading this are probably pretty well steeped in the widely exported culture of The West, let us imagine an alteration to the party photograph. Rather than a cake with candles, rather than bright conical hats, and a pile of wrapped presents, let us imagine a different celebration. Let us imagine some sort of anniversary celebration from China, Iran, Greece, Zimbabwe. A name day celebration, a work anniversary, a coming-of-age party.

Perhaps the hats are different or absent entirely. Instead of a cake, there are cookies or a soup. The presents are absent, but perhaps small red envelopes are visible.

This celebration might or might not “read” to you. You might recognize the trappings as something, or you might not. If you make something of the scene, you might only have bits and pieces of it, or maybe you have a thorough but second-hand knowledge. What would you make of it?

Your cultural background informs how you make sense of any photograph, but especially (of course) those laden with cultural cues. Would you recognize a photograph from a Bat Mitzvah? A Cotillion? A Quinceañera?

In all these cases you might well recognize that a party is happening. It might or might not be obvious to you who the guest of honor is. It might or might not be obvious to you what, exactly, is being celebrated. Nevertheless, you’re likely to imagine some things to fill in the details outside the frame. You might imagine music, dancing, food, talk.

The photo transports you, in a sense, to the party. You fill in the details of the party to some degree, whether you want to or not, based on whatever material you have at hand. You probably get some of the details wrong.

You might fill in some of these details from movies you’ve seen, or books you’re read, that seem to be related. Would you get the music, the language, the dances right, or would you fill in vague notions of them from your own background, or from that one television show? How much would your reading of the photo differ from that of someone who lives, or has lived, inside the culture represented in the photo?

If you’re unfamiliar with, say, the Quinceañera, you might imagine that you’re seeing a wedding, be surprised at the apparent youth of the bride, and think badly of the older gentleman you imagine to be the groom. With this reading in mind, you might go so far as to imagine a creepy expression on the face of the bystander you have identified as “the groom.”

If, on the other hand, you do know a little more about the Quinceañera tradition, you might correctly identify the “bride” as a fifteen-year-old, and the creepy older “groom” as an innocent bystander, and read his expression as amiable benevolence.

Note that the bystander’s expression might well be read in two contradictory ways by two different viewers depending on their cultural backgrounds. Each viewer might well be absolutely certain of their interpretation. Creepy or benevolent? When you fill in the details around the photo, you are building what you imagine to be real and accord it some of the weight of reality.

The meaning you make of any of these variations of the imagined party photo depends largely on your own cultural background, and what you know (or imagine you know) about the cultural details being shown in the picture. As a result, the meaning you make will be different, sometimes radically different, from someone else’s. The expression you saw on the man’s face may well be completely real to you. You see it, it’s there, it’s obvious and definite to you.

Consider now the seated man.

Imagine that he is a political figure, recognizable to you. It occurs to you, maybe, that he is being interviewed. You imagine that his attention is directed to an interviewer out of frame and that the interviewer is asking a question to which the seated man is listening.

Suppose that the man you recognize is a politician you support.

Likely, you will imagine that before and after the picture was taken, the figure was offering sober, well thought out, answers to questions. Perhaps the answers were also amusing. You might imagine the occasional gaffe if the man is known to stumble from time to time. Nevertheless, you are likely to form a warm impression of the man in the picture. You are likely to imagine that he is doing well, making a good impression, sounding, looking, behaving in a manner you approve of.

The man’s posture may strike you as poised, calm, intelligent. If he’s sweating, you imagine the room is hot. If his collar is undone, he strikes you as casual, in control. His hand gesture seems firm, appropriate.

Suppose, contrariwise, that you recognize the man as a politician you do not support, who belongs to the party you despise.

In this case, there’s a fair chance that you’ll imagine his answers as stupid, venal, or self-serving. You might imagine that he’s lying a great deal, or simply wrong about facts. You might imagine that he dodges questions rather than facing them head-on.

Perhaps you see nervousness in the man’s posture, or signs of cowardice, stupidity, mental illness. His sweat stems not from the heat of the room, but from some weakness of character, or nervous tension. The undone collar seems shabby, weak, unkempt. The hand gesture is disturbing, it feels wrong, as if the man is damaged.

Again, you see these things. They are definite and clear to you. Another person looking at the picture does not see these things, and you are astonished. You have difficulty understanding how they cannot see how the man’s expression is clear: the man is lying, the man is venal, the man is dodging questions.

In reality, both of you are reacting to things you cannot see in the picture, things you have invented, things that appear in the world you have built to surround the picture. The picture is just a man sitting in a chair, nothing more. The worlds you have built around the picture are different.

This is why I offered only imaginary pictures, not real ones, for this exercise!

We see pictures and make judgments about what we see. We tend to be fairly inflexible about those judgments because we’ve already fitted the photograph into our notion of reality. The expression on the man’s face, the way his hand gestures, these are not some painter’s fancy, they are real. The meaning of that expression, that gesture, is real. You see them.

It’s tempting to think of what we see as real because the photograph is real. The great black/gold dress controversy of 2015 proved that even apparently objective details like an object’s color can be subject to cognitive biases. How much more, then, are things like a woman’s expression, a man’s gesture, subject to interpretation?

We see it one way, and we are certain that we’ve extracted the ground truth of the photograph. The dress is obviously gold, the politician is clearly urbane, and the old lady is unquestionably in a bad mood. We are certain of these facts.

Others see them differently, but with equal certainty. The photograph’s generosity allows us to see many different realities in it; the photograph’s basis in reality makes us certain of what we see.


This is the fourth in a series of essays on photographs, on the ways we as viewers construct meaning from them, and on what it all means.


About the author: Andrew Molitor writes software by day and takes pictures by night. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Molitor is based in Norfolk, Virginia, and does his best to obsess over gear, specs, or sharpness. You can find more of his writing on his blog.