Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Ideas strike me in random places.  Sometimes I let them swish around in my mind and then pass on.  But now, more often than not, I keep a small green notebook in my pocket to scribble down the idea before it undulates back into the expansive ocean of inspiration and imagination from which it came.  Below are two of these ideas, one about how photographs can rob us of our identity, and the next about how urban settings can swallow a sense of self:



A human is not defined by a single moment.  If this were the case, life would be rather dull and one-dimensional.  Given this assumption, photographs frighten me.  First, I have to acknowledge that there are various kinds of photographs.  Landscape photographs, city skylines, cars, houses, etc; then there are those with human subjects – graduation portraits, prom pictures, candid moments slurping spaghetti or making an emphatic remark at a dinner discussion. 

Now for my point: photographs frighten me because when a human is the subject, more often than not, that individual is dehumanized.  The photograph decontextualizes the person and tries to define their entirety with a single frame.  We lose a part of our identity, our self, our humanness, when the shutter opens and shuts, the iris takes in light, and the image is recorded onto film or a memory card.  We are no longer a composite of moments.  Instead, we are what we are in that single frame, and as time passes and we continue to change more and more from the “individual held captive”, then the photograph can become a tool of negation, denying the evolution of the human identity, the constant morphing and evolving of the self, and insist on a one-dimensional single-framed rendering. 

I know, I know – photographs can’t think – but I’m talking about the implications and consequences of a photograph.  A human is a river, constantly flowing, always evolving, and the photograph disrupts the current, stealing a glimpse and using that frame to define the whole.  Imagine 200 years down the road, when (“if”, should you insist) aliens land on earth and inspect our planet’s knick-knacks to piece together who these humanoid inhabitants were.  In this example, our lives on earth have long since expired, but our photographs remain in the cabinet of a descendent somewhere, say Benkleman, Nebraska.  The alien strolls into our descendant’s home in Benkleman and finds the cabinet.  They find a photograph of you and Billy Bob as children on a seesaw in a playground.  The alien looks at the photograph probably unaffected (don’t worry – I had a consultation with an expert on alien emotions at the university) because there is not much of a context.  Who are these kids on the seesaw? What did they become?  Who were their families?  What were their hobbies?  None of this is evident from the photograph because – like I said – the subjects are decontextualized and without a context, our identity is thrown into doubt because the subject in the image is less of a human and more of a “human rendered”.


Think – compare meeting a stranger to seeing a photograph of them riding a bicycle.  Which gives us more information about the individual?  Which provides a more accurate representation of who that person was, is, and may become?  I hope we agree that it is the former.  Photoalbums can make up for this.  Albums contextualize images, usually placing them in a chronological progression where they interact with other photographs and belong to a greater narrative that do indeed convey more about an individual than a single frame.  I am much more comfortable with albums and other mediums of context.  The Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, is very effective in evoking individual subject’s humanity in photographs because the museum provides the background, the circumstance.  So anyways, this was just an idea I had when somebody took a photograph of me that I wish they had not taken.  It also got me to thinking about how cameras can intrude on the sanctity of the present (check out Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida).  This may be a subject to explore in a future post.


A second thought that occurred to me when I was on a metro connection in Paris.  When I walk down a flight of steps surrounded by a sea of souls, I lose the sense that I am an individual organism functioning separately from the rest.  Rather, I feel like a mere component of a machine.  Sense of self is lost when I’m flooded in a sea of humanity.  Social psychologists describe it as the difference between controlled (the mind is sharp and focused) and automatic (the mind is in auto-pilot) processing.


I think that dense urban life can also dehumanize us.  Without regard, we rush by beggars, the mumblers, and the utterly destitute because we are too preoccupied with getting from A to B.  The A to B life is endemic in urban settings, and harmful to how we treat one another.  I encountered similar experiences in New York City where a disheveled homeless man covered in rags under years worth of hair and beard lay on a street corner screaming for help, clutching his stomach with one hand, and reaching out with another.  An ambulance passed him slowly and the driver just shook his head, and drove on.  Passers-by tuned him out.  In social psychology, there is also an idea of a diffusion of responsibility.  The idea is pretty simple and frighteningly real: the larger a group, the less impetus individuals feel to act on behalf of the group.  They assume that because the group is so large, someone will get to it.  Problem is – when everybody thinks somebody else will take care of a problem, nobody acts.   

1 comment:

kn said...

deep thoughts! so here's what i think about photographs. i agree and disagree. yes, looking at a photograph of a person pales in comparison to meeting the live individual. however...there is something about that moment-in-time snapshot that a photo can elicit which a live meeting may not. we bring out our best attributes when meeting someone. the true "self" isn't all there. heck, i don't think anyone knows who he really is in the complete sense so how can we even portray this to other people, let alone expect others to judge us for who we truly are. but that's another subject. my point is that there might be an aspect of a person, be it one-dimensional, that can be captured in a photo that may never really be expressed in a live social context.