Photography: Objective or Subjective

A short extract from an essay I wrote in 2012

Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright address the discussion of photography’s ability to be subjectivity and objectivity. They explain, ‘It is a paradox of photography that although we know that images can be ambiguous and are easily manipulated or altered… much of the power of photography still lies in the shared belief that photographs are objective or truthful records of events.’ (2002: 17) In other words Cartwright and Sturken explain that photographs can be manipulated through methods of framing and selection, yet there is still a belief that photos represent reality, an objective truth. Andre Bazin and Roland Barthes share the view that photographs are objective records of reality. Bazin focuses of the preservation of existence as does Barthes. However, Barthes also explains how we interpret images, through the use of studium and punctum. He assumes like Bazin that photos capture reality and are therefore used as records of evidence of existence.  

On the other hand the issue of photography being subjective is supported by Pierre Bourdieu and Walter Benjamin. Bourdieu believes that as Sturken and Cartwright suggest images involve some degree of subjective choice, whether it is by the photographer or the people in the photo. Bourdieu uses the example of the pose to dismiss Barthes and Bazin’s argument, by suggesting that the camera forces an unnatural pose, causing the person to present an idealised image of the self according to social codes of behaviour, and to illustrate a particular class. Bourdieu bases his argument on the fact that photography is used as a social practice. This in effect contradicts the argument that photos are objective.

Benjamin’s seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction highlights two main issues concerning photography. Firstly, the power of photography and its ability to reproduce autographic images, that is to say photography can reproduce unique pieces of art. Secondly, he discusses how the camera represents reality. Benjamin emphasises that the reproducibility of a work of art causes the image to become meaningless, it lacks authenticity which means the original work loses its ‘aura’. The way the image is reproduced has a subjective value as it does not reflect the authenticity of the original image.

Sturken and Cartwright explain, ‘our awareness of the subjective nature of imaging is in constant tension with the legacy of objectivity that clings to the camera and machines that produce images today.’ (2002: 17) As has been discussed briefly, there is much debate amount theorists to suggest whether photography is an informative or expressive practice.

Andre Bazin expresses the view that photography is objective. Bazin explains that it is photography which captures reality without human intervention. ‘All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence.’ (Bazin, 1960: 7) He bases this judgement of the process of photography being an automatic capture of a moment. Basically Bazin believes photography has an objective quality which encourages the view that photography captures a moment of reality. ‘No matter how skilful the painter… The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image.’ (Bazin, 1960: 7) Bazin stresses the view that because photography is an automatic process it has a unique quality in capturing reality, unlike painting, which Bazin describes as merely an illusion.

Bazin goes on to describe that photos preserve a moment in time. ‘The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.’ (1960: 8) Photographs are these historical documents which cement to us the existence of the object or person depicted. Bazin refers to painting and sculpture earlier in the article as a way of trying to preserve our physical existence, which he calls the mummy complex. ‘The process might reveal that at the origin of painting and sculpture there lies a mummy complex.’ (1960: 4)

Bazin goes on to discuss the role of the photographer, he explains that the photographer has the advantage of selecting what is captured, however this does not interfere with the objectivity of the photo. As he explains, ‘the objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making.’ (1960: 7-8) As mentioned before the interference of the human hand shadows the realist quality, this is why photography is a superior form of capturing an objective truth. However, as will be discussed later, Walter Benjamin believes that photography and its power to reproduce images means images lose a sense of their authenticity. Benjamin uses the example of artwork as a way of signifying that it is a unique piece, but with it being produced so often these images lose a quality in that they can be interpreted in many ways, hence losing objectivity.

As the previous comment suggests photographers have the ability to frame and select what is captured, this is the subjective element which overshadows the understanding that photos can be honest depictions of events or people. ‘Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights.’ (John Berger, 1972: 2-3) The photographer’s choice of subject is a manipulation of the way we interpret images. However, John Berger goes on to explain that images ‘showed how something or somebody had once looked- and thus by implication how the subject had once been seen by other people.’(1972: 3) This in effect preserves the past, and is evidence of ‘the world which surrounded other people at other times.’ (1972:3). Berger supports Bazin’s view that photography preserves the past and is evidentiary proof of this. Berger also supports Barthes idea that photos are more than evidential proof, but they can affect us in profound ways. Barthes uses the image of his mother to illustrate this point, as will be discussed.

Roland Barthes explains that there are two elements within photography, and these are studium and punctum. The studium is part of our cultural understanding helping us to interpret meaning from an image. Graham Allen explains, ‘the studium… concerns the clear communication of cultural codes which lead, ultimately, to a signified or set of signifieds’. (2003: 127) Barthes describes the way in which he interprets images, ‘it is culturally that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions.’ (2003: 25) As suggested above the studium is based on our understanding of cultural codes which help us in identifying the meaning within an image.

The punctum is something harder to explain, an element of the image that prompts a reaction from us. Barthes explains, ‘it is not I who seek it out… it is an element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.’ (2003: 25) The punctum is reliant solely upon the viewer of the image; unlike the studium, the punctum is not coded. Barthes describes how an image can contain both studium and punctum, but explains that the punctum can disturb the studium.

Barthes explanation of the studium and punctum evokes a discussion in the way we view images. In regards to Sturken and Cartwright, Barthes supports the view that photos are objective by referring to photos as documents of ‘that-has-been’. The term ‘that-has-been’ describes photos as objective evidence of that which exists or did exist; they are objective recordings of physical facts. Barthes shares a similar view to Bazin that photos preserve a moment of time, a proof of existence.

Barthes uses the image of his mother as a way of instilling the value in photography. The Winter Garden photo does not feature in the book and that is because Barthes says the photo exists only for him. For anyone else to view the photo they would fail to understand what Barthes sees. He explains that it would be viewed as any other photo that features in Camera Lucida.

Overall Bazin and Barthes describe photos as a function to preserve memories.  Bazin uses photography against the act of painting and sculpture to exemplify photography as a representation of the real. This complements Barthes thoughts on photography having a profound impact upon the viewer, as is described by the terms studium and punctum.  Overall Bazin and Barthes share the view that photography is objective, as it captures a moment of reality and preserves the memory and experience as proof of its existence.

However, theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu and Walter Benjamin share a different view. They both support the view that photography is a subjective practice. Pierre Bourdieu uses the example of the pose to suggest that photographs fail to be objective.

Bourdieu explains that photos have an objective element in the way they reflect reality. However, he goes on to explain that photography is a social practice and so loses its objectivity in favour of the social function people play in photographs. Susan Sontag explains, ‘photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.’ (2008: 4) Sontag explains that photographs can be limiting in the way they express the world. She describes photos as capturing a piece of it, a short moment of time which cannot adequately reflect the world which surrounds the photograph. This supports Bourdieu’s argument that the short moment captured by a photograph cannot be used as an objective artefact; he uses the example of the pose to explain this further.

Using the example of the pose he explains that ‘to strike a pose is to offer oneself to be captured in a posture which is not and which does not seek to be ‘natural’’ (1999: 166). In other words photos fail to be objective as there is an unconscious subjectivity which underlies the capture.

Bourdieu goes on to explain that, ‘the meaning of the pose adopted for the photograph can only be understood with relation to the symbolic system in which it has its place, and which, for the peasant, defines the behaviour and manners suitable for his relations with other people.’ (1999: 166) As was discussed previously Barthes explains how viewers search for meaning in images, this reiterates the point Bourdieu identifies, in that the images capture the manners and behaviours deemed appropriate. Photography is a social practice and with it social functions apply as is evident in the way people pose. Bourdieu strongly enforces the view that photography is a subjective practice as people in the photograph have an awareness of the cameras presence and so enforce a pose which is not natural; this diminishes any sense in a photograph being objective.

Overall Bourdieu contradicts the idea that photographs are objective; the pose suggests that there is reliance upon social function that influences the way photos are taken. Sturken and Cartwright identify that there are subjective choices which are made when taking a photograph. Bourdieu examines the pose as that subjective choice which damages any sense of objectivity. 


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