Monday, March 28, 2016

A philosophy of photos


In my blog last week we have seen that photos can capture philosophical thoughts and stimulate philosophical thinking. But captured in a photo, we see always an abstraction of reality; not reality as such. Such an abstraction can be done in different ways. Last week’s photo brings several aspects of life together, like a medieval painting that combines related scenes in one picture. Besides that we live through these phases of life one after another and in fact cannot put them together as if they were coexistent, they are also represented in a metaphorical way. The road stands for the course of life, for example. It is also possible to single out one philosophical aspect and take a photo of it. Each aspect of the ferry photo can be photographed apart as a metaphor of an aspect of life. The problem is then – and that is also true for the ferry photo as a whole – that the metaphorical sense of such a photo of an aspect usually needs a verbal explanation: The metaphorical sense is often not obvious, for why would it be so that a road represents the path of life?
A photo can also depict a philosophical theory. So at the moment I am working on a series of photos that tries to express the idea that people don’t look in an objective way to the world around but that they have to interpret what they see, by fitting it in the mental frames they have developed through the years. Such frames are also known as cognitive schemas: schemas that help organize what you see and that let out what is unimportant and bring to the foreground what is relevant for you. However, frames can also distort reality and leave out what might be relevant but that isn’t recognized by you as such, just because your prejudiced or biased cognitive schema blocks it. I still have a long way to go before I’ll have taken a convincing series of photos.
Often I have taken photos of objects, sites or sceneries simply because I liked them, although I couldn’t say why, and only afterwards I saw their possible philosophical relevance. I think that most readers of this blog will know Plato’s allegory of the cave: A group of people is imprisoned from childhood in a cave. Behind their backs a fire is burning and between the fire and the prisoners people are continuously passing by. The prisoners are chained that way that they cannot see what occurs behind them. They see only the shadows of the passers-by on a wall in front of them. Therefore the prisoners know only how these people look like and what they transport in an indirect way and for the prisoners the projections on the wall constitute the real world, since they don’t know the world in another way. Now it is so that I often take photos of reflections in water, like the one on the top of this blog. Once I realized that such a photo does not only show a special image but that in fact it is a photo of a “Plato World”: The picture indirectly shows what was outside the range of the camera just as the shadows in Plato’s cave reflect what is going on behind the backs of the prisoners. But what is seen is actually a distorted reality, for – for instance – houses and threes don’t thrill.
Would the image present reality if I hadn’t taken a picture of the reflection of the houses and trees but had photographed them directly? I think the answer is also “no”. The image of the photo on the top of this blog is actually a second degree image: It’s a picture of a reflection in water and the reflection is a picture of the real houses and trees along the waterside. However, also the image in the camera is a kind of representation of reality and not reality itself, for it is a construction: The image in the camera and the photo based on it are not a capture of the reality as it is (although many people think so) but made as the maker of the camera think we can best transform the world as it is into a manageable picture that can be shown on a computer and, if you like, e-mailed to other people or printed on paper. If the camera construction had been different, the photo would have been different as well (in case you don’t grasp this, think of the way photos looked like, say, 50 years ago). Once we realize this, we must come to the conclusion that the photo on the top of this blog is not a second degree but a third degree representation, for what I failed to add yet is its interpretation by the observer in his or her mind. The upshot is that there is no photo or it is philosophical in some way, even if it’s plain. However, some photos are more philosophical than other ones.

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