Faux Pas

As part of my studies, I was asked to find an example of a good use of a photographic faux pas. Once done, I was to post my image to our online academic forum and elicit discussion from my peers. 

The image I chose (pictured above) is so dear to me that I couldn’t help but repost here, on this blog, my contribution to the forum, for you, my gentle reader, to ponder over.

Well, not exactly a faux pas (in my opinion the photo is technically fine) but an interesting example of narrative ambivalence in a photograph due to the intentional, or unintentional, contextual uncertainty latent in the work. 

When I first saw this photo, many years ago, my first reading of the photo was that the woman being denounced was a Jew, and those surrounding her Nazi sympathizers. Then I read the caption accompanying the image and was struck by the fact that the story recorded in the photo was the exact inverse of what I had just registered from first impressions (the photo actually shows the moment when a young woman, and former Gestapo informer, trying to hide in the crowd, is identified by a woman she had betrayed). I looked back at the photo and was dumbstruck by the fact that I hadn’t noticed the boy in the striped pyjamas standing on the far left – this would have easily “given the game away” and helped me in correcting my initial reading. But I didn’t notice the boy, and now, even though my reading of the photo has been “corrected”, I can still see the two narratives floating above the photo every time I look at this photo; and then I just have to look to the left and see the boy in the striped pyjamas to confirm that indeed only one of these two narratives is factually correct. 

This ambivalence so perfectly illustrates George Santayana’s statement:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

(SANTAYANA 2011: 172)

I would like to believe that the photographer intentionally toyed with this element of ambivalence and uncertainty in this particular work of his.

Featured Image:

Henri Cartier-Bresson. 1945. Dessau. Huxley-Parlour [online]. Available at: https://huxleyparlour.com/henri-cartier-bresson-in-dessau/ [accessed 18 March 2019]


SANTAYANA, George. 2011. The Life of Reason or The Phases of Human Progress: Introduction and Reason in Common Sense. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.