Positions & Practice – Week 3

Looking back through the viewfinder

In this, the third post related to my studies, I will ponder on the theme set for this week, which was ‘Rethinking Photographers’. This is an unusual theme to grapple with seeing that we are rarely asked or even accustomed to turn a questioning finger towards the photographer herself/himself.

So let us see here how photographers have been viewed by non-photographers and the general public alike and how these perceived perceptions from the public have affected the photographer and her/his practice.

But no sooner is the territory that is to be investigated neatly charted out in front of me, that I immediately come to a sudden halt; anticipating what it is that is to be investigated I realise that I face an impasse which seems, at least momentarily, fairly impossible to traverse. The reason for this sudden loss of confidence comes from my realisation that I have no record of the photographer. With what means, therefore, shall I invoke her/him and sensibly discuss about this (non-)being? 

Surely, you would say, we have biographies written about photographers, reams littered with anecdotes about them collected from people who were close to them and knew them well; maybe even some photographs of them, capturing them casually in a moment of leisure or bent over their instruments… 

I liken the photographer to the choreographer or the theatre director – her/his work is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere! Let me explain further. Unlike, for example, the painter and the sculptor, we seemingly find no trace of the photographer herself/himself in her/his photographic work. Sure, at times, they allow their shadow or reflection to appear somewhere in the photo (think Henri Cartier-Bresson or Garry Winogrand) in what might seem as an attempt on their part to instate some form of authorship – their shadow or reflection within the photographed image acting as a phantasmagorical stamp of authentication, testifying s/he was truly the one pressing the shutter release button that led to the recording of that photographed image. In reality, though, these cameo appearances do nothing but strengthen our tacit conviction that the photographer is invisible, irrecoverable and forever unknown.

Where, therefore, shall we look for the photographer?

According to Christian Metz, photography is linked with death in many ways (in MEDEIROS, MENDES FLORES & CUNHA LEAL 2016: 17). One way is the social practice of keeping photographs of departed loved ones (Ibid. 17). The photograph retains within it, as if frozen in time, the image of the loved one, who is now gone. The photograph of the departed loved one is thus a reminder of the irrevocable loss of the loved one and at the same time a keepsake to safeguard our memory of the departed loved one. This duality in the photograph of the departed loved one is nicely mirrored in the fetish which is defined as “both loss […] and protection against loss” (Ibid. 17). The fetish “metonymically, […] alludes to the contiguous place of lack […] and metaphorically, […] as the primordial displacement of the look aimed at replacing an absence by a presence – an object, a small object, a part object” (Ibid. 19). This argument, by assuming that the photograph acts as a fetish that alludes to the departed loved one, makes the photograph simultaneously a nothing, forever reminding us of a lack, and a something, which keeps us, at least momentarily, as long as our eyes linger over the photographed image, attached (or under the belief of being somewhat still attached) to the departed loved one. Thus, it seems plausible to conclude that according to Metz our relation with the photographed image does not come about because of the physicality of the photograph itself (even though, let it be said, that this property of the photograph, its pocketable materiality, is vital, is a necessary pre-condition without which what I write next can not hold ground) but due to what it represents – our relation is with the photographed subject.

But all this seems to be fairly common knowledge…

Yet, let us return to the above argument that holds that the photograph can act as a fetish. Surely, we do not need to be reminded by the photograph that the loved one depicted in the photograph is gone. But, if we are so aware of the irrevocable loss of the photographed subject, what makes us hold on to the photographed image of the departed loved one? Metz argues that it is the suspension of belief – “the cleavage of belief: ‘I know very well, but….’” (in MEDEIROS, MENDES FLORES & CUNHA LEAL 2016: 22) – while our eyes ponder the photographed image of the departed loved one, the awareness or belief that the photographed subject is gone is momentarily halted. So what can keep this rift open within the photographed image so that our suspension of belief while pondering the photographed image can actuate itself?

My hypothesis is that every time we look at the photographed image we reenact the photographic act. By this I mean that while looking at the photographed image we actively, even though maybe unconsciously, embody and perform the photographer. Momentarily, it is as if we are the photographer herself/himself, looking through the viewfinder, and there beholding the once-again-living-image of our loved one. Consider this scenario: a married woman, unbeknown to her husband, goes to a photographic studio of a well-known photographer and asks for her portrait to be taken. This is done and no sooner has she left the studio that while crossing the street to reach the shops on the opposite side she is run over by a lorry and certified dead on the spot. Through a long sequence of events which I shall not bother you, the reader, with, the widower gets hold of this last photographed portrait of his wife. As he ponders over this portrait, the wraith of the deceased wife still manages to incite burning jealousy in the widower who while looking at the image unwittingly enacts the photographer who effectively was the last man to lay his eyes on his wife.

If you, dear reader, have come so far and have been persuaded by my argument, then you will agree with me that the photograph acts as a fetish that alludes to the… photographer. Our relation with the photographed image is not due to what it represents i.e. the photographed subject, but due to that presence which is forever invisible and unknown…. our relation (our obsession, one might say) is with the photographer – “a relationship that is not the disappearance of distance, not a bringing together, or – to circumscribe more closely the essence of generosity and of goodness – a relationship whose positivity comes from remoteness, from separation, for it nourishes itself, one might say, with its hunger” (LEVINAS 1961/1969: 34). 

This explains why photographers, great and small, have been idolised and demonised in equal measure by their public. Before the advent of the citizen photojournalist, professional photojournalists where considered “self-confident, individualistic, indomitable and highly respected” and perceived as the “the kings and queens of photography” (in MARTIN 2013: 188). This edge that the photographic act imparts onto its practitioners is nicely captured by a graphic-designer-turned-photojournalist who says that “when you’re viewing an experience through a viewfinder, you become bolder” (Ibid. 189)… and fetishised.


LEVINAS, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and Infinity (1961). Translated by Alphonso Lingis. USA: Duquesne University Press.

MARTIN, Lister. (ed.) 2013. The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. 2nd edn. London and New York: Routledge.

MEDEIROS, Margarida, MENDES FLORES, Teresa and CUNHA LEAL, Joana. (ed.) 2015. Photography and Cinema. UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 

Featured Image:

Sarah Sofía [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/legalcode)]. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Argus_21_rangefinder_camera_(brighter_version).JPG [accessed 17 February 2019].