Can You Photograph Reality? Leave a comment

Do you believe that your images are objective representations of reality? You might be mistaken. Here are a few arguments why.

Subjectivity and Objectivity

In public debate, objectivity is a highly discussed virtue. Funded research, manipulated images, and the worldwide appearance of fake news are highly debated topics all around the globe. In its essence, the demand for neutral coverage is a demand for objectivity: People want to see reality instead of the opinion of an author, director, or photographer.

To make it quick: it simply isn’t possible. Not in journalism, not in social research, and not in photography. You, as a photographer, can’t produce neutral images. Everything that you create is influenced by your personal taste, feelings, or opinions. In fact, that’s exactly how the online dictionary Lexico defines “subjectivity”:


NOUN (subjectivities)

[mass noun]

1 The quality of being based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.

You can try to evaluate different approaches and give your audience a selection of opposing perspectives. Still, these efforts cannot eliminate your own involvement in the creation of an image. Not in wedding photography, not in photojournalism, and not in landscape photography. The good news is: that’s fine.

Subject and Perspective

The first step in creating a photograph is selecting a subject. An arch in Utah, a freckled model, or the floating markets are subjects selected by you. The selection of a certain subject for photography is already non-objective. When you choose one subject, you neglect others and put your personal perspective into your photography.

This image includes the boy and the fire, but I decided to remove the open door on the left from the frame.

Even more will that happen when you decide how to take an image of your subject. In the case of landscape images, you will decide about the right time and location. You will decide about what is visible in the foreground, what you will find in the background, and how you prefer the lighting. Some decisions will be conscious, some subconscious, and others will happen arbitrarily or by accident. Thus, everything is a result of your approach to photography.

Perspective on a Topic

Subjectivity is most visible when we photograph humans. Humans interact with each other, and your presence in a scene will alter everything. When you shoot a portrait, the person in front of the lens will react to you. She or he will collaborate with you. Your images reflect the relation between you and your model. Landscapes don’t react, though. But two pictures of a lake will never look the same. If you tell people “this is how the Pangong Tso looks,” you’re actually lying a little bit. The highest salt water lake looked like that when you took the image from your perspective with your gear. It surely doesn’t look like it right now.

The Panong Lake in May 2015.

Covering a broader topic like a portrait of a local market demonstrates subjectivity more clearly. When you are at one spot, you can’t be at another. While you are focusing on the beautiful flower, you will miss the old lady buying cheese. There will be so many things that you can’t cover due to your specific position and point of view. Photographers in areas of war and conflict have to deal with this issue all the time. Ideally, they weigh many different perspectives to create an overall holistic image. Still, whatever is important to their story is a subjective decision. While a holistic image is what we should aim at, each of its little parts will be a unique image from a certain point of view. That’s normal and unavoidable.

Development of a Photograph

“I get everything right in camera” and “I edit the images in a way that they look like what I felt when I was there” seem to be a discussion about objectivity and subjectivity. Actually, both of them are subjective decisions. Getting everything right in camera means that we accept the perspective and development of our gear. Still, we chose the specific camera, the specific lens, and the composition according to our taste. We included what we assumed was relevant and then trusted the camera. The choice of how we process the image will also be a decision, influenced by our opinion. As our camera is limited to capture a certain field of view and a limited dynamic range, it produces a selected part of reality, not reality as a whole.

Some people use HDR to increase the information of an image, some people use black and white to emphasize structure instead of colors. Dodge and burn may add to the aesthetics, and the stamp tool removes parts of the image that don’t add to the story. You might be a friend of some of the tools and reject others. Your way of developing an image is an individual decision.

That’s definitley not how I saw this scene. I simply like the image.

The Presentation Is Your Choice

If you haven’t been convinced about the inescapability of subjectivity, here comes my strongest argument. The selection of your images and the way you will present them is a subjective decision. Why did you choose to show picture A and not B? That’s a decision based on your own opinion. To present an objective image, you need to present all possible variations of a subject at once. That’s impossible.

The mode of presentation is also a personal decision. Why on Instagram, why printed? An image can never copy reality, because it needs a medium to be presented. The medium will not show reality, but an image. Your audience will eventually see this image through their own eyes. Reception is subjective as well.

The monochrome image emphasizes the structure of the rocks.

Plato Knew It All Along

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato already thought about representations of reality. In his Allegory of the Cave, he argued that every individual’s perception of the world is incomplete. We can only perceive things according to our senses, which are limited. We can’t sense everything. Plato assumed that we perceive just a little part of reality, and only by thinking (i.e. practicing philosophy) can we widen that image of reality. In his opinion, arts could thus just be an image of an image of reality. It is a work created from your subjective perception and will be read by others, who also have a different perception.

Is that a problem? No. It’s simply something that we have to deal with. Taking care that we know what we present how and why is a step towards the best possible representation. The knowledge about the impossibility of reproducing an objective reality doesn’t mean that art is senseless. It’s in fact these subjective images that start to make us think about a situation and understand it through different perspectives. If you consciously try to misinform your audience by creating an image that you don’t believe in, you did a bad job. If you have a good reason for putting your stories and images out there, you helped others understanding the world. After all, art triggers the philosophers in us.


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