Misrepresentation and the photographic image

ImageRoland Barthes considered that “All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know that they are agents of death”.[1]

The subject is not alive in a photograph; it is a representation of that person, nothing more and nothing less. However, death does seem to be a prominent area of discussion, and how tragedy and death are captured in the photographic image.

These photographs by Nick Brandt of birds which have died and calcified in Lake Natron are, therefore, very interesting. The birds died and almost instantly calcified, fixing them in the poses which they died. The photos not only depict the bird’s death, but also the moment of their death.

Like the camera, the lake has captured them in a single moment. It has taken their life and captured it in this final representation. This is almost a perfect metaphor for photography itself: The image will live on, but the animal and the moment is no more.

However, the bird’s have been moved from the shoreline where they were found and positioned for the photographer. Even their death has been misrepresented and exploited for the camera’s lens.

The photographic image is a representation of what happened, and in no way feels or acts like the actual moment itself.

Moving on from this thought, the media uses the photographic image as a weapon, a tool for propaganda. All the photographs we saw of Vietnam had an agenda, as does any media coverage. When I think of these photographs I also think of a series of essays, also published as a book, from Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War did not take Place stresses that the west didn’t actually experience the Gulf War — it never truly existed in the eyes of the everyday citizen — they just experienced its stylised misrepresentation through photographs, articles, and TV.

This is a controversial line of thought. But when we experience a photo, we never experience the event. We only experience its representation, or misrepresentation, and the agenda which the photographer sets out to achieve.

A photograph only shows what is in shot, and cannot represent an event by itself. Context cannot exist in the photograph; the moment is all it can represent and nothing more.

The photographic image is important in history, but the camera and the photographer are never truly objective and cannot be trusted.

[1] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang, New York; 1981), p. 92


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