Reflections on reality - Refract Photography

Reflections on reality

On political communication, photography and the construction of reality

Being a political communication scholar and a photographer, I have often wondered if there is something that might explain a common interest in both. And while it might not seem like political communication and photography have much in common, they actually do have more in common than it seems at first glance. This is mainly because both deal directly with representations of reality. Political communication research is often focused on how the interaction between different actors (politicians, intresest groups, the media) constructs reality. An example of this is the interplay between the media and the public, and how the media provide information on the world outside the reach of our own direct observation. While this information from the media contains elements of an objective, factual reality, the information that reaches us through the media is often transformed in a way that emphasizes certain aspects of an event, while disregarding others. Thus, perhaps even unaviodably, is what the media tell us an interpretation of reality, rather than a factual depiction of it. This obviously does not only apply to media, but also to other political actors, such as interest groups and politicians.

Photographs provide an interpretation of reality in much the same way as the media do. On the one hand, photos always contain an element of objective reality, by capturing light rays refracting off an object. At the same time, what we see and do not see in a photograph is highly determined by the choices of the photographer. For example, the photographer may choose to take a photo from a specific angle, use a specific shutter speed to over- or under-expose some areas, or place more or less emphasis on a specific object in the photo by changing the depht of field (the amount of blur on objects that are not entirely in focus). Somewhere in this field of tension between the objective and the subjective, both the media and photographers construct their reality. That is what makes the study of political communication and photography very similar to me, and is also what largely explains my interest in both of them.

Strongly related to the question of where the interest in photography comes from, is the question of the goal of photography. Or rather, what that goal is for me. From the focus on (depictions of) reality, you might have already guessed that I am not a big fan of extensive photo editing, such as the removal of unwanted objects from a photograph. However, when taking photos in automatic mode, cameras can and will quite often misjudge the conditions under which a photograph is taken. Therefore, photos rolling out of a camera are rarely as accurate a depiction of reality as they could have been. This is why in my opinion a distinction should be made between extensive and minor editing. Extensive editing has as primary goal to communicate the artistic and emotional value of a photograph, rather than the reality behind it. Minor editing has primarily the goal to increase the extent to which the photo represents reality as the photographer observed it. Of course, this is not a binary difference, but rather a scale. And, as already discussed above, ultimately reality is in the eye of the beholder, be that the media, a politician or a photographer. Besides, a photograph can convey more than just a factual depiction of reality. It can also implicitly tell something about the broader conditions (the atmosphere) under which it was taken. Communicating this feeling, in addition to the visual aspect, makes it possible for a viewer to not only see the photograph, but also to emotionally experience the moment in which it was taken. An example would be trying to communicate the feeling of sitting at a terrace on the waterfront during a warm summer night. A photo might depict the objective reality of such a moment very well, but as long as it does not induce any kind of feeling or emotional recognition with the viewer, it fails to convey the full extent of the moment in which the photo was taken.

The perfect photo, then, would be a photo which both represents factual reality exactly, and which induces within each viewer exactly the feelings and atmosphere that the photographer experienced when taking the photo. Of course, such an ideal photo is neither attainable nor does it exist. And ultimately is the interpretation of any photo up to the viewer. But the goal of photography for me in general is to get as close to that ideal photo as possible. However, every photograph is different, due to the nature of what it depicts. A photo showing people, for example, might be more likely to induce feelings than a photo showing a building. So some photos inherently communicate more of a feeling, while others tell more about an objective reality, regardless of how they are edited. With that in mind, the goal of photography, and photo editing, ultimately resides in each specific photo itself.