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“On one side of the lens is the decision-making power of the photographer and on the other side of the lens is the performative power of the subject”

that is seen. . . .Her presence is, after all, hidden in the photograph but dominant in the moment of photographing. The act of photography . . . differs entirely from the resultant photograph in that the photograph obscures the nature of the actual event.” - Lindsay Seers, It Has To Be This Way by M. Anthony Penwill, 2009

However it doesn’t have to be this way. In Part 2 of this article, I’ll look at particular artists that foreground the nature of the actual event of photography. The presence of these artists is as dominant in their work as it is in the moment of image-making. But first, I’ll attempt to map out broadly, in Part 1, an approach to understanding photography as a relationship. Moving beyond prevailing ways of thinking about photography (for example, either as a ‘decisive moment’ in the Bressonian sense, or as a ‘text’ in the Structuralist sense, or as an ‘object’ in the sense of the Bechers and the Düsseldorf school), we could understand the image as a transaction, constituted within the power dynamics of the relationship between photographer and subject. So what exactly is at stake in this image-making exchange? Just as Lacan describes “the mirror stage” in which the infant sees itself for the first time as other, the subject of a photograph is forced to consider themselves as other, as a double of the Self. As Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins argue, both mirrors and photographs create “a second figure who can be examined more closely than the original – a double that can also be alienated from the Self – taken away, as a photograph can be, to another place.” This dimension of photography – its ability to record something, reproducing a past moment in a different time and space – establishes a relationship where power is exercised by the photographer’s intentions, while the subject’s control over the use and context of the photograph being taken is often limited. Susan Sontag points out that photography turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. “To photograph people is to violate them by seeing them as they never see themselves. By having knowledge  Lutz, C & Collins, J (1994) ‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic’. In Taylor, L – Visualizing Theory, NY: Routledge. p. 363

of them they can never have.” So, on one side of the lens is the decision-making power of the photographer and on the other side of the lens is the performative power of the subject. Portraiture, for example, occurs through the negotiation between these two, where what is at stake is the production of identity. Foucault diagnoses the power of photography in its ability to “establish over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates and judges them.” This contestation becomes all the more significant through photography’s dubious but functioning claim to truth. Reproduction of the photographic moment is commonly related to the notion of truth, especially in the context of documenting, classifying and interpreting the past. Foucault, however, points out how archives (or collections of photographs) only appear to be coherent due to the historian’s (or photographer’s) selective choice. I don’t know who it was that once said that “the camera never lies” but I would love to meet them and find out how much of a plonker they feel now that it seems obvious that lying is the only thing the camera is good for. The single frame that photography produces fixes meaning only by repressing all other possible truths of that moment. Derrida explains that every text contains an implicit suppression of meaning, “by which an order is imposed on reality and by which a subtle repression is exercised”, as these suppressions of potential alternatives “exclude, subordinate, and hide the various potential meanings.” As obvious as this may seem, applying this understanding to the photographic text makes it impossible to ignore that reading photographs as truthful representations of their subjects is always misguided. Rather, portraits are made through a dialogical  Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p.53

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. NY: Pantheon. p.25

Foucault, M. (1978) Archaeology of Knowledge. Lon: Tavistock. p.138

Lamont, M. – ‘How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida’ in American Journal of Sociology, vol. 93, no. 3 (Nov., 1987) p.590

Stimulus Respond - Binary  
Stimulus Respond - Binary  

The Binary issue of Stimulus Respond, November 2010.