Magoosh GRE

The Indexical Nature of Photography

| March 18, 2015

The aim o this essay would be to expatiate on my understanding of the indexical nature of the photograph. I will start by explaining what photography is in general and how it may impact an individual’s perception of a photograph.
Photography is derived from Greek, where it means ‘drawing or writing with light’. It is the process of producing images mediated with light effects.

Photography, summed in one word, is to view, consider or imagine – therefore is all of what we see around us. It comes after we have made mental investments, and also after the use of our hands and tools which are essential in photography. Photography is the vision for a moment captured through the lens (Sontag, 1979, P10).
Photography, painting and drawing are similar as they utilize the same senses of imagination and creativity. The painter and cameraman work based on their imagination, as this is the basis for a very artistic and successful piece of work.

Wells (2004) argues that indexical signs involve an “existential” relationship between the signifier and the signified. Thereby illustrating that both entities need to have co-existed in the same place, at the same time. For example, a footprint is an indexical sign of a foot and therefore a person, therefore the person had to have been there for the footprint to have been made. Likewise, a photograph is an indexical sign that testifies to the moment that the camera was in the presence of the subject.

An image article represents a relationship between the sender and the receiver; the picture however, does not suggest neutral vision of things. Images are read and translated by the recipient, based on their visual experience and social imagination. The picture does not address the sense of sight of the recipient; instead it addresses their feelings, emotions and social inheritance.

Therefore, understanding an image is closely linked to the culture of the recipient and the recipient’s ability to understand the impact of the photograph. This ability to understand the contents of a photograph, and interpret it, is very much based on the cognition, previous experiences and cultural background of the recipient. In other words, the meaning inherent in any photograph is subjective, and is wholly based on the individual’s interpretation.
The relationships between photography and their subjective meaning, has been divided into three fundamental types by Wells (2004):
• Index: This illustrates a sign just like that of a footprint or a shadow, which shows that the object has been physically put in place by another object – in the case a human.
• Icon: A sign, just like a portrait, which looks exactly like the object being portrayed.
• Symbol: A sign, whose relationship with the object being portrayed, could only be interpreted through social interventions such as language.

Iconic and indexical features of a photograph often come together to illustrate ”indexicality” that ensures its dissimilar iconic contents and realism.
A photo is a witness to many of the events that pass by at lightening speed, which one’s memory may not be able to apprehend. An image is similar to expressive languages and methods of technical and visual qualities. However, the effectiveness of the creative vision remains directly associated with the taste, feelings, imagination, principles, sense of form and expression of the individual. Besides, the photographic equipment is not what is important in photography, it is the ability to see things and express them based on cognition using the tools available.

A photograph’s indexicality has been undermined by digital techniques such as digital photography and also by the union between still and moving images. Tagg (1988) in his theory on “The Burden of Representation” argues that a photograph’s meaning is not expressed in its indexical nature, but the link between photograph and meaning is based on a “discriminatory technical, cultural and historical process” in which optical and chemical equipments, work together to “organise experience and desire and produce a new reality”. The new reality is the photograph, which eventually, through further processes, would have a more realistic meaning.

Susan Sontag (1979, pg 11) states “photography is essentially an act of non-intervention”. “The main differences between old-fashioned photography (analogue), as opposed to digital imaging – is its ultimate dependence upon, and therefore reference to, a physical person or object present at the moment of making the original exposure. This physical presence is the origin or source of the possibility of an image and consequently, the image stands as an index of the once physical presence. It is this indexical status which is the source of the authority of the image and thus, of central theoretical debates relating to realism and ‘truth’.” (Wells, 2004 p36)
This therefore highlights the indexical accuracy of the photographs. However, its synecdoche nature means that we cannot fully interpret the full extent of what happened surrounding the photographs.
The following photographs in figures 1 – 5, are culled from a published editorial article in the Daily Mirror. The photographs showcase the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by UK soldiers. The photographs were deemed as fake.

My argument therefore is against the conclusions derived from this photographs. Someone must have had to take them, and edit them. There was definitely a soldier and a prisoner that was being maltreated. It is my belief that it was the headlines, expressed in figure 6 that created the misleading arguments. Without the headlines, depicting that a British soldier maltreated a prisoner, the subject of abuse and torture would still have been brought up and dealt it. According to Stuart Hall, for a piece of news to be deemed authentic, it has to be action focused, temporal and newsworthy (Cogen and Young, 1981). These pictures met all those criteria. It could therefore be argued that the photography utilized in this paper was used to attract customers to the paper, and not necessarily to impose empathy or feelings into the reader.

The news headline and pictures posted, thoroughly illustrate the effectiveness of a photograph in enticing readers to believe anything they see. Though it is not yet clear who took the pictures and how they got leaked, the cover up story, deeming the picture as fake, illustrate the lengths that the British Government, would take to protect its soldiers, as those derogatory photographs could result in revenge attacks on British soldiers.

Photography, with respect to these pictures, has been used in a way so as to invoke retaliation in its readers, not necessarily against the soldiers, but against the war as a whole. If this were a personal attack on the soldiers, then their faces would have been shown. Their faces and identities are not even being shown in the pictures. Why did the photographer therefore take the pictures; why send it to a newspaper editor to publish it; and why would the newspaper editor publish the article without any proof of authenticity? This photographic editorial therefore illustrates the power of digital photography, as a tool in modifying the message being transmitted through still images.
The photographer is the foundation of any photographic image. If the photographer does not accurately define a set of specific goals prior to capturing, the image may not portray the message being passed across. Technology that is currently available in digital imaging enables us to take a good picture. But underlying that technology, there is always an idea, which defines the motivation behind the photographer’s choice to shoot an image. Each idea is unique; therefore each cameraman or journalists need to develop their own individual idea that distinguishes them from others.
Technology developments in the media and the emergence of digital cameras have made it possible for anyone to take pictures. Therefore in the advent that the public does request a distinctive image, the emphasis would therefore not be on the technology being utilised, but on the relationship between the objects. This is much more important as pictures are in no way objective. Therefore a photographer, working on a particular job in maybe a news press or television, would constantly try to free himself of the subjectivity inherent in photography, in order to take objective photographs when transmitting events as he sees them.

Cogen, S., and Young, J. (1981) The Manufacture of News: Social Problems, Deviance and the Mass Media. London: Constable.
Sontag, S. (1979): On Photography. Harmondsworth: Penguin
Squires, C. (1990.), The Critical Image
Tagg, J. (1988) The Burden of Representation, University of Minnesota Press, 242p
Wells, L. (2004.), Photography: A Critical Introduction

Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, Media & Journalism Essay Examples