My World Within, Not So Without: Acknowledging There Is No Objective 'Reality' In Photography

* I won't be tackling the genres of documentary photography and photojournalism in relation to the idea of objective reality. It's covered elsewhere by many, and frankly, it isn't of interest to me.

What is of interest is how as a photographer, I create a new reality, a purported reality, whether intentional or not, every time I shoot, edit, and share an image with the world. These three steps in production are very important because each one, and certainly the first step, are culpable in coloring the ultimate outcome, or reality, of an image.

What is even more interesting: my world within, my internal self, my thinking self, my conscious life, my awareness, my feelings at the time of taking a photograph - all my filters and experiences, expectations and desires, phobias and anxieties, joys and thrills, the total embodiment and understanding of existence trapped within my skull, wrapped in a delicate, silken sponge called the brain, can never represent an objective reality. Not even my own.

In fact, there's really no such thing as an objective reality. Quantum mechanics and neuroscience have seen to that, if one requires final nails in the coffin of a proposed objective reality. Which is in part why I couldn't really give a shit about what any professor of photojournalism may say about presenting an objective reality through sequential imagery- if such a thing is even considered valid anymore in academic circles.

Why is it even important to acknowledge that there is no such thing as objective reality, in photography or anything else? And what does it mean to us as a species, and in particular, to we photographers practicing the craft?

My short answer to this is, it may not be important at all. Photographers usually don't squabble amongst themselves about philosophical tenants while out in the field or while sitting around drinking beer talking shop. This Unsubscription To Objective Reality isn't a requisite to anything substantial in life. To keep things simple, an unbelief in something doesn't amount to an actual belief in anything. It's merely an antithesis position, an "anti" this or that which in and of itself doesn't proclaim a position. In essence, it's nothing. No thing.

My long answer, in parts

Photography, on the other hand, is a subjective portrayal of objective reality through stills imagery. At first glance, this statement may seem nonsensical or a spattering of wordplay. But what most photographers do - and what I set out to do - is to deliberately capture the outside world, an objective reality.

From another perspective, photographers set out to create an objective reality. Their own objective reality. A paradox.

Acknowledging why there is no such thing as objective reality becomes important in order to keep photographers humble, and to clear up misconceptions which may ultimately hold a photographer back from advancing his or her craft to its fullest potential.

What misconceptions?

- That what the camera captures initially is "reality" and shouldn't be tampered with (or very lightly)

- That heavy editing (post processing) distorts reality and is therefore a lie perpetrated by the photographer

Non-photographers may not easily relate to these misconceptions. But allow me to demonstrate by way of an experience related to me by another photographer. This story covers both misconceptions in one fell swoop.

A story

A photographer showed me a picture she had just taken on an outing we'd just completed. I forget now what the details were, but I remember liking the photo when I viewed it in the back of her camera. She informed me, "It's too bad I can't keep it."

I asked, "Why?"

"Because I cut off the guy's feet."

I looked again at the picture. Indeed, she hadn't perfectly framed the subject from the bottom. Either half of his shoes were visible or maybe the frame had effectively cut his feet off at the ankles. Then I recalled a hard and fast rule that every photographer eventually learns about when it comes to making crops on human subjects: never crop at the joints.

So I suggested that the image could easily be fixed by cropping further up the leg, somewhere below the knee. It was an offhand remark because I thought it was an obvious and easy fix. But not for her.

"I don't believe in cropping."

This may not have been her verbatim response, but it amounted to that. She refused to crop. Something about integrity. Something about distorting reality. The kind of bullshit one picks up in esoteric circles of hard-nosed photojournalism.

The story stuck with me for several reasons. One, because I think it's completely inaccurate on both points she brought up. If there's integrity in not cropping, it's only because one believes that it infringes on one's moral character for choosing to edit what the "camera sees."

This is horse pucky, ladies and gentlemen, of the highest order. And I draw your attention to the crux of the matter: a camera is not an objective recording instrument. The camera is not a recorder of objective reality.

Camera ≠ Objective Reality

If I haven't convinced you that there is no such thing as objective reality, or at least in photography, then maybe I'll have better luck communicating this idea.

Cameras are merely tools. They are not arbitrators of reality. They do not define reality, even if there were such a thing. A camera is an object wielded by humans with lofty ideas about sweet nothings. At best, the camera is wielded by a photographer who aspires to create something which causes a reaction of some kind from the viewer: this does not even remotely belong to the landscape of objective reality. It does, however, belong to the realm of art.

At best, a camera captures exactly what the photographer intends. This alone isn't a definition of objective reality nor is it proof of its existence.

Which brings up a side note: there is no proof that objective reality exists. Where are the studies confirming it? To the contrary, there are multiple studies indirectly confirming that objective reality does not exist. Quantum science says that two observers may observe the same sub-atomic particle in different states simultaneously. Neuroscience claims that what we merely observe as human beings is not a construct for object reality.

Back to the camera. Camera models are different. They have different focal lengths, different capabilities and attributes. There are film cameras and digital cameras. They all treat light slightly differently by design. Therefore, how is any one camera considered objective? How are any of them? And we haven't even touched on the plethora of lenses out there and how they further distort/enhance/and subjectify the world around us.

What my photographer friend misses is the fact that mistakes made by the photographer, and easily correctable ones at that, do not egregiously offend some mythical creature named Objective Reality. Nor do they cause harm to photojournalism's fairy tale notion of this invisible, non-reactive substance. The camera - a tool - is as infallible as the photographer using it, and likely worse because of the ways lenses see differently from human eyes.

There is much more to be said about how the photographer's subjective reality, an idea more palatable, plays an influence on his or her photography. There's also more to speak of in how there's a disconnect between the inner and outer worlds of experience and knowledge of the photographer. At this point, someone as myself might summon Kant's a priori and a posteriori definitions to help shed light (or extreme criticism) upon the very idea of objective reality.

Example of Kant's two sources of knowledge, via Wikipedia: A priori: Consider the proposition: "If George V reigned at least four days, then he reigned more than three days". This is something that one knows a priori, because it expresses a statement that one can derive by reason alone.

A posteriori: Compare this with the proposition expressed by the sentence: "George V reigned from 1910 to 1936". This is something that (if true) one must come to know a posteriori, because it expresses an empirical fact unknowable by reason alone.

How the hell does objective reality fit into this framework? For me, and I imagine what could be the only answer, is that it does not. Like the belief in a god or gods, one can't comfortably fit the undefined, or ideas which have no definitions universally agreed upon - into neat little packages of understanding. Hence, objective reality does not exist in a state that is universally agreed on, or true. At least, not philosophically-speaking. And certainly not scientifically.

This leaves objective reality safely within the loving arms of tomfoolery and the wasteyards of esoteric flotsam. Forget about it.

I think if there's anything in the world which proves objective reality couldn't possible exist, it's art. Art, while taking on forms of real substances, communicates something quite subjective for everyone. Maybe there's a majority consensus on what one piece of art actually is.

Like in the header image, my shot from a group exhibition in Brazil a few years back. Objectively, one may argue that the image is an expression of joy. After all, the young men are jumping around in the water enjoying themselves. Then comes along the homeless man, who looks at my image and places his hand on it. What exactly is he feeling? I can't tell. How could I? Is he feeling that same joy as the boys? Is he feeling regret, thinking back on when and where his life "went wrong"? Could it be nothing at all - is he merely catching his breath in between sips of his beer, in need of a place to steady his drunken frame?

If there is no objective reaction to come from art, no one solid feeling that humans will always experience and relate to and agree upon, then how can we measure objectivity to such an extreme? How can we invent something called objective reality, unless we're trying to make other points which are possibly unprovable and non-existent? One thing's certain: Objective Reality will never ask for its picture to be taken.

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