What the photo shows

The After

What you see and what the camera sees are not the same. “The After” by Rubén Chase (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What is captured when a photo is taken of a scene? This seems important in relation to a theory of mine about photographic “levelling and sharpening” of memory or, in other words, the idea that what is captured in a photo is privileged within memory at the expense of what is not.

Photographs are not the objective recordings of reality suggested by the adage “the camera never lies”. Their content is more limited and contrived than we generally acknowledge.

Roland Barthes (1981) claimed that a photograph proves that its referent “has been there”. In other words, it contains evidence of the (past) existence of what was photographed. He also called the relationship between photo and referent “indexical” (i.e. the photo is directly connected to the referent through physical processes). This is technically true of film photography because chemicals are activated by light reflected from the photographed scene. Digital photographs are another matter because light is passed through non-physical processes and algorithms before it is ever seen by a human. One might say, then, that the digital camera stands between reality and perception to a greater degree than does the film camera. However, the huge variance in quality within film photography between photographers, developers, cameras, types of film, etc., suggest that this indexical relationship is a complex one.

Indexical or not, the evidence of that past existence – the content of the photograph – is a  mediated representation of a particular view, covering a timeframe so short that our only experience of it is through still images. Photography critic John Szarkowski (1966, p.12) explains the difference between photographs and photographed reality:

“…while the camera deals with recording factual things and events that form the subject of the photograph, it only produces a perceived reality that is remembered after the thing or event has passed. While people believe that photographs do not lie, this is an illusion caused by the mistaken belief that the subject and the picture of the subject is the same thing. One is reminded of the written inscription on the famous painting of a “pipe” by the Cubist painter Rene Magritte that refutes what we believe we are seeing by saying “This is not a pipe.” Indeed it is a painting of a pipe and not a real pipe in the same way that a photograph of a subject is both an artifact and a record of what the photographer captured with his camera from nature. Because we see reality in different ways, we must understand that we are looking at different truths rather than the truth and that, therefore, all photographs lie in one way or another.”

The difference between photograph and reality is reflected in other sayings, such as “the camera adds 10 pounds” or “he/she is not photogenic”. How can one photograph of a person make them look good and another, taken a few seconds later, make them look bad? Perhaps our “frozen appearance” (what we look like as a still image) really does differ from moment to moment (and that is, after all, what the camera captures – a moment that lasts the length of time the shutter is open) but then these moments do not appear to be accurate reflections of reality as we perceive it.

“Photographs do not simply capture reality. It is a photographic reality: spatial dimensions are reduced to a surface.” (Christmann 2008, p. 2-3).

The photograph also diverges from its corresponding moment of reality in that it is only visual (aside from the artificial materiality of the paper or screen), and only in two dimensions (the paper or screen is 3-dimensional but in a way that highlights the “flatness” of the image itself). The spatial contents of the scene can only be viewed from the angle at which the camera was pointed and non-visual sensory information is lost. Temporal relations are also cut off. We can only know what happened before or after the scene through more external evidence (other photos, videos, etc.) or through memory.

It is not just the mechanics of the camera and the physical properties of the artefact that is produced that cause photographs to diverge from reality. Human agency (i.e. choices made by the photographer) affect what is created. Szarkowski (1980) recognised this selective process:

“Photography is a system of visual editing… Like chess, or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite.”

Aside from choosing the elements of composition, the perspective, the timing and, perhaps, staging the scene, we choose particular subjects to photograph. We do not photograph everything equally. We make decisions about what is “photo-worthy” and moderate that by what is appropriate. Certain cultural factors drive us to photograph some things and stop us from photographing others: I will feel compelled to photograph a famous landmark but will know not to take a photograph at a public swimming pool. Other factors relate to self-image: I am more likely to be photographed at a party than washing the dishes. I am more likely to appear in a photograph smiling than crying.

These drivers and barriers are in a state of flux and the tendency to take more photographs is redefining what is considered “photo-worthy” (see Lindley et al. 2008; Van House et al., 2005). Mundane objects and aspects of life are beginning to appear more frequently in photo collections, and it is in the mundane that we find another quality of the photograph: while it doesn’t capture reality as we perceive it (instead, generating a mediated, abstracted representation), it does contain some extra information – hints of things that were there but that we didn’t notice or pay attention to at the time. Discussing the conclusions of two studies (their own and those of Harper et al. 2008) of the implications of using an automatic, wearable camera (Sensecam), Fleck and Fitzpatrick (2009, p. 1033) write:

“…images are often able to remind participants of things not usually remembered because they lack merit or are considered unimportant at that time—the kind of mundane aspects of life you would not usually choose to capture. [Harper et al.] found that surprise in seeing the ‘mundane’ led people to reflect on, and even consider changing, their life.”

These participants’ reactions to the foregrounding of mundane aspects of their experience  shows that, as well as the content of a photograph being subject to manipulation by human and technological agents, its meaning is dependent on the context of the audience (for more on this, see Rose 2006). Although these factors reduce the photograph’s power as “objective” evidence of reality (a notion supported by Oravec 1995), they are also integral to its power as a prompt for investigating, and reflecting on, lived experience.


  • Barthes (1978). Camera Lucida.
  • Christmann, G.B. (2008). The Power of Photographs of Buildings in the Dresden Urban Discourse: Towards a Visual Discourse Analysis. FORUM : QUALITATIVE SOCIAL RESEARCH, 9(3).
  • Fleck, R., & Fitzpatrick, G. (2009). Teachers’ and tutors’ social reflection around SenseCam images. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 67(12), 1024–1036.
  • Harper, R., Randall, D., Smyth, N., Evans, C., Heledd, L., & Moore, R. (2008, February). The past is a different place: they do things differently there. In Proceedings of the 7th ACM conference on Designing interactive systems (pp. 271-280). ACM.
  • Lindley, S. E., Durrant, A., Kirk, D. S., & Taylor, A. S. (2008). Collocated social practices surrounding photos. Proceeding of the twenty-sixth annual CHI conference extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems – CHI  ’0867(12), 3921.
  • Oravec, J., (1995). The camera never lies : Social construction of self and group in video, film, and photography. Journal of Value Inquiry, 29, pp.431–446.
  • Rose, G. (2006). Visual Methodologies. London: Sage.
  • Szarkowski, J. (1966). The Photographer’s Eye. New York: Museum of Modern Art
  • Szarkowski, J. (1980). The Photographer’s Eye. London: Secker and Warburg.
  • van House, N. a., Davis, M., Ames, M., Finn, M., Viswanathan, V., & Hall, S. (2005). The Uses of Personal Networked Digital Imaging : An Empirical Study of Cameraphone Photos and Sharing. CHI 2005, 1853–1856.

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