Bill Viola, Nantes Triptych 1992
Imagine a washing line stretched across your lifetime. One end of the line is tied to the hospital bed that you were born in, the other to your gravestone. – Use your mother’s ankle or an urn of ashes, if you prefer. Hopefully you get the idea.
Now, at the start of the line, and in chronological order – from your first to last breath – peg up every photograph of you that has ever been taken. Yes, EVERY photograph. Imagine that: Your life set out before you, swaying in pictures.
Take a slow walk along the line reminiscing on your life suspended. There are lots of thought provoking questions to be asked, and not just “What was I thinking with that haircut?” but questions to make you consider photography in previously unthought-of ways.
Ok, social networking sites, most notably Facebook, already bring such timelines to life, but no wandering off task seeking digital ‘profiles’. These crowd-sourced trails – tracking and tagging you 24/7 – certainly raise plenty of lines for further reflections. But not now. Read on; this is an exercise in your imagination. As a young photographer, it’s your most valuable asset.
When does a conscious relationship with photography begin?
Photographs, courtesy of hospital scans, might have existed prior to our birth but the chances are we did not strike knowing poses. With time we have graduated from passive subject matter to willing (or unwilling) participants. Stood before a wide range of recording devices, we have been coerced, encouraged, directed, cropped and temporary blinded. Not to mention the subsequent consequences: processed, developed, downloaded, uploaded, adjusted, manipulated, tagged, shared, treasured and trashed. Photograph a child of 3 or 4 years old today and a request of ‘can I see it’ will undoubtedly follow. In almost every instance they will be proud to recognise themselves. In a child’s eyes that singular portrait exists within an immediate, uncomplicated moment. But regarded later – suspended on their imaginary timeline perhaps– the same image becomes loaded with significance.
Memories, hopes, and fears can swell and circulate around a photograph. Each suspended moment has the potential to take on new meaning as time passes, reframing and re-contextualising as it goes.
Consider this: A parent of a four year old is looking at an image of herself (or himself) at the same age. Physical comparisons are inevitable. A parent will instinctively look for resemblances between themselves and their child, and obviously these could never be made prior to parenthood. However, over time, as the photograph is re-visited, more complex emotional knots can emerge. Memories from the past will tangle with hopes and aspirations for both of their futures.
Photographs do not only show something to us; they do something to us: A photograph challenges the viewer to consider the past in relation to their present, and in doing so can shape motivations, ideas and hopes for the future.
A conscious relationship with photography might begin at an early age – a child quickly learns that a camera records their image. However, over time a heightened awareness of the potential of an image emerges, and instinctively we strive to control it -constructing ideal scenarios with carefully selected locations, faking confident poses, fighting against undesirable portrayals by shrinking into the background, shielding faces or even refusing to co-operate with a photographer’s demands. These behaviours will be familiar to everyone – from our own past actions in front of a lens, and from our experiences behind it. It is an early lesson learnt, parallel to our growing self-awareness: The camera can be a powerful tool – welcomed and celebrated; treated with fear and suspicion. Young photographers, take note: Develop sensitivity to the behaviours a camera can provoke, and in turn you will be better equipped to negotiate, persuade and manipulate. Useful skills, particularly when it comes to dealing with people.
Our relationship with photography begins with that initial wink of a camera’s eye. When history – our own personal, malleable history – is first fixed as an image. For new photography students: A deeper consciousness awaits – studying photography should not only change the way that you consider past photographs, but also how you engage with the world itself. Your future timeline will certainly be richer for it. Now, imagine that.
This text was written to encourage KS5 Photography students to read and reflect on the role of photography within their lives. For teachers it might form the basis of a valuable group activity or discussion. The following questions may support with this.
Additional questions to provoke reflection and discussion:
- When were you first confronted with a camera? What is the evidence of this?
- At what points does your imaginary timeline hang low to the ground, weighted by the significant moments in your life that have been photographed?
- How have the physical attributes of photographs changed over your lifetime? –The quality of print, the texture of the paper, the emergence of digital imagery etc.? How has camera technology evolved?
- Which images of your life are by ‘professional photographers’ such as school portraits, wedding photos etc.? And do these have more, or less,‘value’ than the other photographs of you? (Are they technically more proficient? Do they lack the spirit or spontaneity of other more vernacular images?).
- Which photographs have the most personal
significance? Which most accurately represent you?
- How might your individual timeline compare with someone else’s, such as a friend, a teacher, or a grandparent? …Or against wider contexts: compared across locations, class divides or cultures?
- Is it important for a young photographer to reflect on the emotions and actions that taking a photograph can provoke in people?
- Is it valuable for photography students to reflect on their own photographic ‘histories?…To unearth their own family stories?
Do you study or teach Photography? This is part of a series of texts I have been playing with. Any use? Thoughts and feedback appreciated.