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Monday, January 6, 2014

WAY back in 1927, Walter Benjamin, cultural theorist, commented on the rise of photography as an emergent form of social discourse. He predicted that the illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read, but the one who cannot take a photograph. Almost a century later, it seems that his sharp observation has finally come true.

Whereas pre-modern man had to make do with artful paintings on cave walls and then later canvass to convey an image with its corresponding message, the invention of light sensitive photo paper and the camera device has allowed us to almost by-pass the realm of the imagination of the artist in order for us to see what they see. It visually replicates the image that the photographer views with almost perfect accuracy, arresting the challenges of time and space. Once an image is captured in a photograph, it as if time bends to make the captured shades of light on print last forever.

It is easy to understand thus the fascination that we have of the photograph amid the fleetingness of moments. The click of the camera is like a hand-held time machine that allows anyone to hold on to the moment whether it be love, youth, revolution, or debauchery and what passes for the sublime, the violent, or the memorable among others.


But what differentiates the photograph from memory and other representations of it through the visual form or art is not just the degree of detail and accuracy that it captures, but how through the printed image that visual can be easily framed and shared. This is where the photo as a social idiom or form of social communication becomes ripe for sociological explanation.

In every photo is both a frame of what intends to be seen, and outside this frame, what is purposively omitted. But often times than not, our reading or should I say consumption of photographs are limited to the frame of what is projected.

So for every ostentatious food porn series that is posted online, the message that the good life as an achievement is relayed. Excluded from the frame is the begging mother and child knocking on the glass windows of the expensive restaurant. Its opposite is also true. For every photo of rural poverty, it would take an ideological reading of the semi-feudal semi-colonial situation of the political economy to make sense of the unjust suffering beyond impulses of Christian guilt.

There is thus great danger in the idiom of photography. Without the intervention of other discourses beyond the image, it automatically appeals to the always-already ideological disposition of the viewer and even the photographer. We end up projecting and consuming images according to the dominant modes of understanding in society – a situation exacerbated by how new modes of media facilitate this exchange.

Indeed, the medium is the message in the age of always-already online living and the notorious Selfie via the camera phone.

Over the holidays, I dug up the ageing black and white photographs of my parents and family from our magic “baul.” Some were colored from the neon age of the 80s but most were from the era of photography when even dead relatives were photographed for remembrance.

As I went over the pictures, I noted that the message of the pictures were about social occasions – a wedding, family outing, and the like. Picture-taking meant standing upright together or sitting down properly to mark the event. The obligatory formal shoot meant that stomachs were tucked, and clothes neatly arranged. These practices of photography are definitely a far cry from the relaxed and carefree manner we face the camera nowadays.

I cannot help but also note that there has been a shift in the subject of the photographs these days if we are to gauge the type of images uploaded on social media compared to the photos of the past. If before, taking a photo was to remember an occasion shared with family and friends, nowadays it is to mark modes of personal consumption – food porn, mall shots, vacation in exotic places, are just examples of this new mode. At the center of the frame of our photographs in this day and age is of course ourselves through the Selfie.

I just did a little social experiment while writing this column to prove this point. There are hardly any shares and likes every time I upload an 800-word article. But look at that picture of me with a bowtie which I just uploaded on social media, my friends are liking it at an unbelievable rate.

Walter Benjamin was indeed correct that textual discourse has been trumped by the convenience of the safe but nevertheless ideological power of the image. This state of affairs also indicate the shrinking imaginary of our times, like a camera lens focusing closer and closer to the Self, omitting from the frame others.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on January 07, 2014.


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