PHOTOGRAPHY, POWER and OTHERS
Updated: Mar 3
Every photograph, much like any piece of visual art, involves three parties – the author, the subject and the viewer. This week we are introduced with the Ethical Triangle.
Fig. 1: Burniske (2008). The Rethorical Triangle [print in a book]
The Ethical Triangle consists of three corners: the subject (s)/ the object (s)/ the participants, the author/ the photographer and the audience/ the viewer. It is a direct interpretation of the Rethorical Triangle of Ethos, Pathos and Logos. R.W. Burniske (2008: 11-12) discusses this relationship in detail, explaining that Ethos involves the creator of the context being ethical and authentic, Logos is about the content what the author creates (in photography these are the subjects), while Pathos concerns the audience that will chew on the end result.
Usually the author of the photographic outcome is the one who is in the charge of the process and who has the power over the ownership of the photograph. The role of the subject or subjects seen in the photograph differs depending on the goal, but usually they have a slightly decreased power over the process and outcome. The viewer will bring his or her own perspective over the outcome, often missing a lot of details about how the photograph was taken, hence perhaps loosing a certain part of the overall context. The author certainly influences where the photographic outcome is going to be seen, however, also that has its limits, since in the digital era it is difficult, almost impossible to follow the process of the image travelling through the digital space. Hence, it is the duty of all involved parties to remain ethical at every stage of the process.
Fig. 2: Saksens (2021). Eurasian nuthatch [photographic image]
To keep my practice ethical, I consider the wants, needs and opinions of my involved subjects. If it is a wild animal to be photographed, a little preparation is always necessary. I prefer to use telephoto lenses to keep myself in a distance and not to bother any wild animals in their activities. I try to be as quiet as possible in nature.
Fig. 3: Saksens (2021). Domesticated dog [photographic image]
If those are domesticated animals, a little play and talking to them helps a lot. Domesticated animals are not only used to human voices, but they also appreciate the communication. Distance is then less of the importance.
Fig. 4: Saksens (2021). A snaphot of my sister during a walk [photographic image]
Photographing people is the most complex of the activities, in my opinion. As Susan Sontag (1979: 17) has put it:
‘To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.’
I often explain my actions before taking a photograph, I think a little bit of knowledge of what is going to happen helps people to relax and gives a feeling of being a bit more in control. It’s like going to a dentist – you feel vulnerable when you open your mouth and let another person to closely examine such a private part as a mouth with tools that you are not familiar with. But if the dentist explains every step on the way and tells a bit about every tool he uses, the gained knowledge helps you to keep calm. Similarly, I think a person being photographed feels and should be informed of what is happening, how much of the person is going to be in the frame and what’s the intended result of the photograph. Sometimes people know exactly what they want and what they absolutely don’t want. The communication helps. It always does.
‘To face the camera is to permit close examination of the photographed subject, including the scrutiny of the face and eyes which are in common sense parlance the seat of soul, personality or character.’ (Lutz and Collins 2003:359-360)
Photographing people without their permission is the same as stealing. Except that you don’t steal anything literally, but you steal a moment of their life, a moment that doesn’t belong to you. You need a permission to keep this moment.
Fig. 5: Saksens (2020). Patagonian mara [photographic image]
The audience that is involved after a photograph is ready to be seen brings something new into the play. Often lacking the background information of the act, it makes its own judgements about what is being showed. The concept of different gazes becomes of importance. In my photographic images I have noticed that my, the photographer’s gaze, is a predator’s gaze. Often working with a telephoto lens and capturing animal images both, the act itself and the seen outcome resemble a hunters-pray relationship, except that the animal is left intact and undisturbed. Sontag (1979:17) mentions this predatory act and compares it to a murder:
‘Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.’
However, the process itself is as old as the humanity. We are all animals after all, creatures with basic needs, one of them being a natural urge to hunt. For me the utmost moment of pleasure in capturing a photographic image of an animal is when I am able to establish an eye-contact with the animal, when the animal looks straight into the lens. Of course, my gaze is not the only gaze. There’s also a viewer’s gaze. This is much more difficult to be singularized as every viewer has a personal gaze.
‘There is, however, not one reader’s gaze; each individual looks with his or her own personal, cultural, and political background or set of interests.’ (Lutz and Collins 2003:358)
However, the viewers are generally encouraged to share this predator’s gaze and become predators themselves for a moment, observing the pray, establishing the eye-contact and then letting it all go.
Fig. 6: Saksens (2020). A dog on a beach [photographic image]
As my practice develops and progresses, I often think about the beginning. My memory brings me back to the past moments of taking photographs. I have always preferred to photograph animals over people, therefore I never had any moments of feeling that what I was doing was wrong in terms of capturing photographs of another being. Until there was a moment when I saw an interesting domesticated dog. I took a photograph of the dog from a far distance, but already then I felt there was something wrong with possessing an image of this moment. An animal who belongs to somebody is a possession of this person, hence you need a permission to photograph it. Wild animals are much different. As long as you don’t hurt them or disturb them, I don’t think they mind much about what you do with the captured moments. And quite frankly, I think they can be happy that you point at them your camera instead of a gun.
Fig. 7: Saksens (2021). A collaboration with Lexi [audible photographic image]
When it comes to my practice and the Work in Progress on the series of Human-Canine Bond, the most recent work I have done involves not only myself being an active participant in taking photographic images, but also letting my subjects to be involved in the process. The relationship becoming more intimate as well as more complex. The overall concept is to show three perspectives of the life of a dog and it’s best friend – the human. The future results will involve photographic images taken by the photographer, by the dog and by the owner. The combination of this along with a audio sound and a story of the dog should give a viewer a feeling of the reality, although the image itself has surrealistic qualities. Consider the image in figure 7. It is a story of a five year old Labrador-Retriever who’s life is cantered around eating. His owner treats his dog as a royalty, letting him to try different food as he eats himself. Much of what the dog sees on daily basis is around the kitchen area and fridge is the dog’s favourite furniture, right after the sofa. The photographic image at the moment consists of a digit image taken by me and a digital photographic image taken by the dog himself while wearing a tiny pet camera. The QR code in the photographic image allows the viewer to become a viewer-listener. I won’t spoil the surprise here. Scan the code and enjoy the sound!
LIST OF REFERENCES
BURNISKE, Richard William. 2008. Literacy in the digital age 2nd ed. USA: Corwin Press.
LUTZ, Catherine and Jane COLLINS. 2003. ‘The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic’. In The photography reader (354-374). London: Routledge.
SONTAG, Susan. 1979. On Photography. Penguin Books.
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1: The Rethorical Triangle. 2008. In R.W. Burniske. 2008. Literacy in the digital age 2nd ed (pg. 12). USA: Corwin Press.
Figure 2: SAKSENS, Ruta. 2021. Eurasian nuthatch [photographic image]. Private Collection: Ruta Saksens
Figure 3: SAKSENS, Ruta. 2021. Domesticated dog [photographic image]. Private Collection: Ruta Saksens
Figure 4: SAKSENS, Ruta. 2021. A snaphot of my sister during a walk [photographic image]. Private Collection: Ruta Saksens
Figure 5: SAKSENS, Ruta. 2020. Patagonian mara [photographic image]. Private Collection: Ruta Saksens
Figure 6: SAKSENS, Ruta. 2020. A dog on a beach [photographic image]. Private Collection: Ruta Saksens
Figure 7: SAKSENS, Ruta. 2021. A collaboration with Lexi [audible photographic image]. Private Collection: Ruta Saksens