For some time now, information mediated through imagery, primarily photographs, has been a fellow chief instructor (the other being literature) of our moral imagination and our perception of distant, clandestine experiences. One thinks of conflicts, controversy or atrocities, with the subtle photographic displays of (what we have come to know as) ”celebrity images” – the visual equivalent of sound bites. What does it mean to represent knowledge visually? The word represents also entails the notion of communicating knowledge.
One of the first things that will strike us about these images is that we take them as representative. We are invited to respond to them – the image of the hydrogen bomb may remind us of the ethical issues of certain kinds of scientific and technological work, the image of the earth as seen from the moon may remind us or suggest questions about space exploration, the image of Francis Crick and James Watson may remind us of the glories of scientific achievement. Each of them taken as representative of a thought, a problem, an achievement, a confluence.
A photograph asks us to engage in a process of storytelling, be it individual or collective. Its form proves ideal for contextualization, and therefore interpretation – the same image of specific wickedness may serve as a ”call for peace” or a ”cry for revenge”, as was argued by writer and activist Susan Sontag. A photograph waits to be explained or falsified by its caption. Thus, when photographs of wreckage and the destruction of Guernica, on April 26, 1937, were brought to light, the chief of propaganda for general Franco’s Nationalist rebellion maintained that it was the Basques who had destroyed their own ancient town, and former capital, by placing dynamite in the sewers, in order to inspire indignation abroad and reinforce the Republican resistance. In our modern society, however, photographs also confer meaning, a sense of importance, to events that are then disseminated and made accessible to the public through what we know as ”news”. A photograph then vivifies an experience and may bring elsewhere, for a spell, a portion of its reality to those who have no experience of it whatsoever. In photography, as in any other art form, there is present a process of selection. Selection further entails an exercising of one’s moral judgment by quantifying experiences, bringing them to parity and roughly choosing which stories are worth telling – as it is impossible to tell all the stories, the question then becomes which story can be central to telling several stories (in this there is a certain kinship between photography and narration). Photographic knowledge identifies, defines, makes memorable but at the same time the repertoire of ”famous images” can exclude, obscure and hide as many issues as it draws to our attention. After all, if one image is being taken as representative, consider how many are not.
Alex Danchev, a scholar of politics and art, more optimistic than Sontag, understood photographs as ”instruments of the imagination, tools for morals”. In a Kantian account, the primary adversaries of expanding our sympathies and enlargening our moral imagination are the two golems of time and space. To take a photograph is, in a sense, to say this is a photograph worth taking. It is to reduce the spread of simultaneity of our world to something ordered, linear, a kind of path. A singular instance, a captured experience to which we can give our attention. The very nature of our moral judgment depends on our commitment and our capacity to pay attention to the world, a capacity that inevitably has its limits, but whose limits can be stretched. One of the ways of ”stretching” those limits is through photography (as well as the greatest human enterprise – literature).
However, this notion about the limits of one’s ability (at best a very nearsighted ability) to pay attention to the world, to step beyond one’s tribe into a world that is larger mentally, to have regard for the suffering of others, has been observed throughout history on occasion. On November 1, 1775, a great earthquake devastated Lisbon taking with it a society’s optimism. In his Poème sur la désastre de Lisbonne, Voltaire was struck by the inability to fully take in what happened elsewhere: ”Lisbon lies in ruins, and here in Paris we dance.” A venture to the twentieth century, an age of genocide and catastrophes, just as well assures us of the indifference brought about by the mental categories that structure our moral imagination within the ”here and now”.
Photography, in the normative sense, much like literature, can extend our notions of what a human life can be, and in that there is value. As Sontag puts it: A photograph may be telling us: this too exists. And that. And that. And it is all ”human”.
Danchev, A. (2009). On art and war and terror. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).
Sontag, S. (2004). Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Penguin.
Sontag, S. (2004). The photographs Are Us, The New York Times Magazine.