Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Beyond the frame

  • 26 June 2006

Last year I led a group of photographers on a tour of Turkey. One member of the group was particularly keen on landscapes. Just outside Istanbul he focused his camera on a magnificent sunset. Then he noticed the wires, telegraph poles and industrial chimneys in the foreground. ‘I hate that kind of ugliness,’ he protested. But he assured his fellow travellers that he wouldn’t let the ugliness spoil his picture. ‘When I get home I’ll put the picture through Photoshop and get rid of those wires,’ he announced.

Manipulation of pho­tographs is nothing new. It has, in fact, been around since the beginnings of photography itself. In 1840, French inventor and photographer Hippolyte Bayard produced a photograph of himself as a corpse, suggesting that he’d drowned himself in his bathtub. He then distributed the image as a protest against the fact that the academy of the day had generously funded his competitor, Mr Daguerre, while he, Bayard, had received nothing.

Photographs have long been employed to manipulate, distort, interpret, validate, define and mirror some sort of truth.

The photo is often a rendering of what actually exists into an ideal of what we would like to exist. A photo can transform presence into absence (the traveller who wants to remove what he sees as ugly) as well as absence into presence. In Mexico I photographed a photographer who makes her living snapping Mexican families against a life-size and very real looking cardboard cut-out of the Pope. ‘I bring his Holiness into the lives of ordinary people,’ she told me.

While photography supports the cult of celebrity, it is the lives of ordinary people who are most often the subject of the photographer’s gaze. And ordinary people are often captured in extraordinary circumstances. The people depicted might be hungry, homeless or traumatised by grief. They may even be wounded or dead. Our response to such images is largely determined by the context in which we see them. We may be shocked into silence or moved to some sort of action. We may be outraged by a perceived intrusion, or disturbed by the aesthetic that accompanies suffering. We may even see so much that we become numb.

In her latest book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag considers our response to images of suffering. This is a sequel to her seminal book On Photography, first published in 1977 and in print ever since. In her current