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Photographic Representation and Interpretation

Contrary to the commonly-held popular belief (or common sense, if you like), a photograph is NOT a representation of objects or scenes, no matter how faithful the images on it may seem. It is an interpretation (or a set of interpretations) of objects and scenes.



The process of interpretation in the production of a photograph is complex and involves different phases that begin even long before a photographer pushes his camera button.

First, let's not forget that a photographer is never born in a cultural vacuum. That is to say that he/she has undergone a long process of cultural programming before he/she even knows how to take a picture. This so called cultural programming includes - but not limited to - the way he/she sees, orders or maps, and values things in his/her mind. Seen in this perspective, a photographic composition is thus never just a mechanical question of formulaic exactness. A lot of subtle and soft-programmed elements are involved and can be traced back in it.



Second, aside from the soft or cultural proramming, a photographer also operates on the knowledge-based level of consciousness when making a photograph. This includes the use of his/her overt and mechanical knowledge of composition, of light, of geometric elements, of subject choice, et cetera that are important in making a photograph.

Like any empirical knowledge, photograph-making know-how may be learned and copied across cultural milieux and as such may - on the surface at least - look neutral, that is regardless of who the person behind the camera is, the "mechanical traces" (that denote knowledge of compositional formulae, etc.) are there and may be universally used to judge and determine the goodness (i.e. qualitative values) of a photograph. But this neutral or neutralizing element never operates alone and out of contexts. The soft and cultural traces will always be imbued and embedded there. It is at this point, I think, that the aesthetic quality of a photograph are often disputed. What looks good to one may not be pleasing to another because different beholders have different sets of expectations.

Of course, we must also be cautious about making straight and rigid claims when it comes to the effect of soft or cultural programming on the production of a photograph. Although more difficult than that of overt knowlege, soft or cultural programming can also be acquired or instilled. Experiences with different and diverse cultural milieux are an important factor that can make one fluently conversant in different cultures and feel equally comfortable with expressing and appreciating different styles of aesthetic expressions.

Written by
Eki Qushay Akhwan
5 August, 2009

Note:
Representation here is defined as "something that stands in for something else"; whereas interpretation is "an attempt or set of attempts to communicate or make sense of things (ideas, objects, scenes, etc.).
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