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Beyond the frame

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 offering, Sontag revisits the territory she explored 30 years earlier when she pondered the extent to which the authority of an image is diminished by the saturation of images. Like her earlier work, Regarding the Pain of Others makes reference to many photos, but it does not contain a single one. The cover, however, has a powerful etching from The Disasters of War by Goya. Sontag argues that Goya marked a significant point of departure in the representation of war and suffering: ‘With Goya, a new standard for responsiveness to suffering enters art … the account of war’s cruelties is fashioned as an assault on the sensibility of the viewer.’

Photography wasn’t far behind Goya, but it took some time before war photographers depicted the battle scene as something other than heroic or even romantic. Roger Fenton was the first known war photographer. He was sent to the Crimea in 1855 by the British government at the behest of Prince Albert. Even though the technology of the day demanded 30-second exposures, Fenton could have turned his lens on the many hundreds of corpses that littered the battlefields and produced a poignant image derivative of Goya’s Disasters of War. But Fenton’s brief was to counteract the reports of the dreadful conditions suffered by the British troops. Death and destruction did not enter his frame. Fenton and his horse-drawn darkroom were nothing more than a PR machine.

However, Sontag points out that there is one picture of Fenton’s that doesn’t require images of dead soldiers to depict the horror of war: The Valley of the Shadow of Death, now part of the Library of Congress collection. The photograph reveals a desolate landscape littered with cannonballs. It’s the place near Balaklava where 600 British soldiers were ambushed, the same event that inspired Tennyson’s poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. But the power of this image really comes from  what we discover beyond the frame—the title and the context. Much of Sontag’s ruminating can be summed up as ‘context is everything’.

Towards the end of her book, Sontag quotes from Baudelaire’s journal. Writing in the early 1860s (before photographs were reproduced in newspapers), Baudelaire said, ‘It is impossible to glance though any newspaper, no matter what the day, the month or the year, without finding on every line the most frightful traces of human perversity.’

Not much has changed. In the days after I read Sontag’s book, our daily papers carried graphic images of ordinary people traumatised by an earthquake in Algiers, bomb blasts in Morocco and Israel, a plane crash in Turkey, more killings in Iraq, massacres in Aceh, an attempted aircraft hijack in Melbourne and starvation in Ethiopia. How does it affect us to be confronted so often by so much suffering?

As a photographer who has sometimes turned his lens on trauma, I have felt the anxiety of misrepresentation—that publication will somehow undermine the intent of my framing. Perhaps the image will be unfairly cropped. Maybe the caption I wrote won’t be used. And what if the image of that emaciated and homeless child dying of malaria appears next to an advertisement for an apartment with a million-dollar view? Does this matter? As Sontag points out, there is no way the creator of the image can guarantee reverential conditions in which to look at such images and be fully responsive to them. Images develop a narrative of their own once they leave the clutches of their creator. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a sophisticated level of visual literacy where the consumers of images engage with the context of what lies both inside and outside the frame. And perhaps, too, those of us who produce  images can strive to resist the lure of cliché and, where appropriate, collaborate with the subject. 

Peter Davis is a Melbourne writer and photographer, and a lecturer at Deakin University.



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