The Profound Madness of a Photograph

What do we see when we see a photograph, just the objectified subject or something beyond?

Taking selfies or photographs on mobile phones is commonplace today. And, while we indulge in it for fun, vanity, shock or to memorialise an event, we also, in the process, make the subject (or the person or thing) that is photographed an object. In other words, we objectify even the object. “Objectification” is often used in a pejorative sense, especially when we reduce women to their gender, as if existing merely to serve the male fantasy. But, when we photograph something, objectification becomes not only a reality, but also a necessity. The “objectness” of a photograph springs from the body of the object, from the occasion the photograph represents. In fact, its body almost dramatically announces itself in the photograph, “that there it is.” In it, I (as the subject of the photograph) experience the feeling of becoming an object, of losing my living existence before I become a spectacle for others to behold. As I take leave of my body and before I adorn albums and files, I cross the threshold with the metallic click of the photographer announcing the little death of me as a person who lived once but who is going to live forever as an object through the photograph.

In Camera Lucida (1981), the semiotician Roland Barthes called this reproducing to infinity, something that has occurred only once and can never occur again. Therefore, a photograph fixes the event in time and makes it available for all eternity to behold. The drama of photography introduces three characters to the scene: the photographer, the spectator, and the subject. Accordingly, it has three performances, too, of actions and intentions: to do, to look, and to undergo. The photographer frames the image with the assistance of the little hole through which they look for “the take,” and surprise the spectator. The observed subject is cognisant of the fact that they are posing, and transform themselves into an image even before they become an image. They willingly play the social game of “I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know I am posing, and yet, I wish that the image coincides with my profound self.” Great photographers are able to capture this profundity. Any lack, therefore, emphasises the gap between what the photograph is and what it could have been.

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Updated On : 23rd Feb, 2020

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