These notes are jottings inspired by the reading (and being in the sense) of John Berger’s Understanding a Photograph. Sometimes I paraphrase or quote the said author, and other times I form thoughts of my own that elaborate as much as extend certain remarkable impulses:
1. Something propels me to photograph. It is there or it isn’t. What is this? That’s the big question. I do not know. Some say it is intuition. But has intuition not been exhausted in definition? So much that by now I should know for certain? Perhaps it’s a thing. The only thing that I am.
2. Oftentimes I ask myself why I photograph. Times like this I resort to looking at images in general – mostly of others, but also of mine. I look through images shared on social media (since the aim of sharing here is to engage socially) by many professional/amateur photographers. I realise that there is a tendency to beautify. To take what we already know and present them in the form of consumerist beauty. One that does nothing beyond feeding a certain need to consume appearance to the height of gluttony. But a photograph, that adds something worthwhile and healthy to the already polluted world of imagery, should lead the eyes to what is rarely perceived in the habit of appearance. It is not a surface view with no layers underneath, but a window to possibilities of existence.
3. Meaning is found in the distance between doubt and certainty (rephrasing John Berger), this distance can also be called a Story, but also Mystery – the unfolding of perception. Meaning and mystery are inseparable.
4. John Berger goes on to explain that neither meaning nor mystery can exist without the passing of time. This leads me to ask: what then is the passing of time? Two people standing in front of a photograph experience it differently, and arrives at subjectively different conclusions. What is responsible for this difference in reading? Could it be that the time considered here is not that which is coincidental with their presence at the moment of looking at the image, but that which has passed by virtue of their personal experiences? Time is relative. If so, time passes differently for each person. And if meaning and mystery needs the passing of time, this explains the relativity of meaning and mystery.
5. The camera indeed does not lie, but it can be silenced and made an unwilling accomplice to a lie.
6. A photograph cannot convey an utter truth. It’s always at the mercy of different gradations of the photographer’s ideological assumptions.
7. Eyes are connected to the ears, such that to see, sometimes, means to listen.
8. A photograph can either be a scientific evidence (in other words, a representation of facts), or a means of communication (and by definition, communication implies exchange. There is no exchange without accounting for the nuances of information or the subjectivity of point of views). Until today, the prevalent assumption has been that what is photographed is in fact the utter truth. Photography came to the rescue when there was the need to summerize, categorise, identify, classify and divide – both things and peoples ( by this, there also became a demarcation between the organiser and the organised: colonialism, imperialism). This assumption is derived from, and confirms the suppression of the social function of subjectivity which in turn was replaced by commodification, having created a vacuum to be exploited by corporate brands and politicians. This has infiltrated every space of mediation: publicity, media, and to an extent, art.
9. The positivism and hope by which public photography was born has now been hijacked by corporate capitalism and political propagandist. In the stretch between these two categories one finds most photographic inclinations of today.
10. True experiences of life Transcends the confines of space and time. No one has ever really lived if they have not experienced such moments. Count yourself wealthy with the best life can offer if you can account for many of those moments. Therefore when we celebrates the life of the dead (be it a loved one or anyone for that matter), what we celebrate are those timeless experiences. Those by which this person(s) defiled the temporality of space, time and history. This alone is already worth erecting a monument over.
11. “Today what surrounds the individual life can change more frequently than the brief sequences of that life itself. The timeless have been abolished and history itself has become ephemerality. History no longer pays its respect to the dead: the dead are simply what they have passed through. There is no longer any generally acknowledge value longer than a life, and most are shorter”
12. This also got me thinking of the many lives lost in the Biafra War, in Boko Haram terrorism, or the day to day useless loss of lives as a result of a dysfunctional society, and I wonder: is history to us this ephemeral? Why does it not matter one bit that the short life experience we have in the world is timeless? No monuments. It’s not even worth as much a footnote. Everything suffers by this abject dissipation of the timelessness of human experience.
13. “All photographs are possible contributors to history, and any photograph, under certain circumstances can be used to break the monopoly that today history has over time”.
14. I will say there is something about photography that makes it possible for the photographer to represent her/his idiosyncrasies in a visual form, much as it is difficult for an accountant to visually account for his thought patterns in relation to a given mathematical calculation. Therein lies the possibility of a personal language in image making.
Image: Dilemma of a New Age II, Abuja.
Copyright: Emeka Okereke, 2016