No photograph means anything. It is there in its visibility rather than standing for something else in the way that written text or musical notes stand for an idea or a stream of sounds. I put this simplistic view first because that is how we may often view a snapshot or a portrait. There’s the family on the beach, or there’s Joe. We know we are looking at a piece of paper or a screenshot, but, suspending disbelief, we ignore the tangible realities and might even speak directly to the subject as if they were there. This is a comforting behaviour, even when looking at photos of friends or family who have passed away. The subject may not be present, but in our imagination the photo can stand in for the real person.
Sometimes, though, the response is not so cozy. The image of a distant human tragedy, especially if it is historical, may hold no personal associations for the viewer. We understand it either through a sense of theatre or through our personal, human empathy. By theatre, I mean that we must read the image as a conceptual construct, something we first make sense of visually and only afterwards emotionally or intellectually. A shot of rubble and fallen masonry may seem abstract and confusing until we spot the small dead hand poking through at one corner. We may react to this with feeling or with indifference.
No matter if there should be similarities of timing or technique, photojournalism is never regarded as just taking snapshots. Crisis photography is story-oriented, and human empathy can make you wonder about the unfamiliar reality in front of you. The concept of story or narrative is one perspective on the image and image making. It is deeply ingrained, such that we say, “Every picture tells a story”. This is one way that an image can be said to be coded, just like a song sheet or a paragraph, in that a story lies waiting in the visual arrangement, waiting to be told. You have to know the language in order to read it.
An image can have layers of meaning that function like harmonics in music, enriching the sound, or which serve as echoes or reflections of previous work to create a new stylistic fusion. Diego Rivera absorbed Giotto, Picasso absorbed Benin, Anthony Caro absorbed David Smith, and so on, as if making fresh dishes from proven ingredients. The history of photography is shorter than that of painting, of course, but the ingredients of photographic imagemaking include all the known history of the visual arts.
The image above is part portrait since it is a photo of a recognisable person, Maria Paz Rod. It is also the capture of an expression, one of those fleeting movements of the head and facial muscles that are there and then gone in an instant. Like Phil Frank’s cover photo of Frank Zappa for “Chunga’s Revenge”, the shot of Maria is hardly glossy mag cover and is not intended to flatter. Rather the intent is to uncover insight.
There is no art direction beyond the photographer’s own observation and selection. As with wildlife photography, the subject is followed in and out of the light. Michel Denis-Huot’s glowering baboons show expressions that are as animal as our own, and it is right that we never lose sight of our physicality in what can otherwise become an onslaught of brand and bling. Then there are the human and humane traditions in the photography of our social nature. Our reactions to pain and joy have been recorded and documented by 160 years of photojournalism, especially in the aftermath of crises, whether global or personal.
What then does this image uncover? What does it mean? What the viewer reads into it will depend on their personal history and their understanding of past images, perhaps on their ability to read an image as they might tell any story. The curves of the neck and the focus on mouth, ear and eye are significant as a matter of scale and contrast to the landscape behind her, but the interpretation of this ‘breath’ remains open. Is it pleasure or pain, relief or acceptance? Is it shrill or is it silent? Your choice.