Photography inevitably begins with some form of encountering and the encounters we have with photography continue wherever and whenever we find images. In this paper, I wish to consider how the juxtaposition of disparate perceptual elements helps form our experience and understanding of the image. Arguing that the image is perhaps best understood not as a unitary narrative but as both an ‘event’ and as a fragmentary encounter. This argument may then pose a problem for scholars who use photographs in their research, as they will need to engage with a multiplicity of meanings contingent upon subjectivity, affect and power. This paper will therefore attempt to sketch an outline of how we might begin to engage with photographic sense making and what our obligations are to understand the multiple clauses arising from our encounters with the image.
In the contemporary context of the media, we tend to find the image in a fragmentary form, located within a network of the Internet or as Sarah Pink (2011) has described, as a part of a ‘multisensory environment.’ It is an environment where consumption of the image is not about returning to a history; rather it is a process of creating something new, which we move toward. Within such an environment, the image becomes entangled with the movement of perception. For Pink, the image is not a simple static surface. Images do not act retrospectively enabling us to look backward at something; instead, they form a part of process that is always in relation to movement. The image, in Pink’s terms, is not the frozen moment. It is embodied in our forward trajectory and it changes with it. We are moving forward within an environment and that movement is in relation to place ‘perceived as event.’ In this sense, a place is not experienced as a geographical location or segregated point. Instead, it is a place that we are travelling through as opposed to somewhere we remain static ‘inside.’ Rather than being a node within a network, place-as-event should be considered as a line or continuum along which perception emerges. This suggests that place-as-event is a place that is traversed and encountered through changing time and changing entanglements with other elements or things. What entangles us are other physical objects, memories and unconscious thoughts and our relationship to all these as we pass through and perceive our environments.
The new process or new ‘constellations of processes’ (Massey, cited in Pink 2011), forms a part of what Pink draws from Ingold as a ‘meshwork’ (Ingold, cited in Pink 2011). Pink describes it as an entanglement resulting from the movement of perception. The entanglement, which takes place, is with disparate perceived elements. Parataxis is a technique used in poetry whereby two dissimilar fragments are juxtaposed without a clear connection. The Internet is a perfect example of parataxis, where seemingly separate information is connected by hyperlinks. The encounters we have with photography are also usually paratactical in nature resulting in an interweaving of different relationships and multiple meanings and connections. Photographs are inevitably copresent, wherein we look at some thing, the image, but are in fact thinking about some thing else. In this way, all images are transcendental, situated beyond or between an exterior object or objects and the interior consciousness. The power or force of any image is likely to be contingent upon multiple, usually external factors. It is as if the power of the photograph can only be addressed when we are not actually speaking of the photograph at all.
The moment of encountering an image occurs at the intersection between multiple possibilities. Here the term ‘intersection’ can be understood as being a point of uncertainty as well as a moment of selection. Althusser (2006) insists that the random or aleatory nature of encounters is dependent upon the possibility of it not having occurred. His argument is a rejection of essentialism; a rejection that there could be a Platonic ideal which could be followed. Althusser’s encounter rests on there being an understood continuum of things and the likelihood that those things will bend toward each other in not always predictable ways.
By relocating the image into an environmental experience, as Pink suggests, it may be possible to understand images in a different way, one focused on restoring social bonds and addressing isolation and alienation as outlined by Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics (Bourriaud, 2009) where he sets out art as the realm of human interactions. For Bourriaud, culture is not a reflection of society rather it produces it. Visually contemplating work, like a photograph is disengaged and passive, whereas a social or participatory form of photography produces relationships that are by implication political and possesses vitality. The random encounters that the world is made up of, and that critical materialism suggests, are a trans-individual process. Such encounters occur as we move through our environments and create place-as-event and where we produce, consume, and encounter images. In “Relational Aesthetics” Bourriaud (2009) speaks about: “artists proposing artworks as moments of sociability and objects producing sociability.” Bourriaud states: “The philosophical tradition that underpins relational aesthetics was defined by Althusser as a ‘materialism of encounter’. The essence of humankind is purely trans-individual, made up of bonds that link individuals together in social forms,” (Bourriaud, 2009). The social activities of looking and speaking are also linked in Rancière’s (2009a) the Emancipated Spectator, where he defines the image as a certain connection of the verbal and the visual, a link between the seen and spoken. In this sense, the image is not only a space of representation but it is also a social space, a place where narratives begin and emit. Images are shorthand for personal stories. Rancière, like Bourriaud, also speaks about the passive spectator and considers whether in a similar vein to Arthaud and Brecht, there is a role for a more active participant in looking. The relationship of the spoken, virtual, psychical, thought based image to the digital image presented on the screen, may provoke a deeper, ontological question relating to photography, the image and the participant who also becomes a spectator. The visible is a relatively small component of the constituent parts that make up what we understand as ‘the image.’ Individuals ‘speak through,’ their personal narratives and multiple encounters, that are enabled by photography. Together these form a collective voice contributing to a type of active looking. The ease with which the digital image can be created, the ready access to cameras and imaging devices, the delivery of images over the Internet means that photography has become more readily a journaling of collective experiences both in its production and its consumption.
With reference to an alleged ‘collaborative turn,’ Palmer writes, “Thinking about photography in collaborative terms invites us to reconfigure assumptions about the photographic act in all its stages,” (Palmer, 2013). Palmer suggests that images are in usually created though engagement and are inevitably collectively produced and experienced. In participatory and collaborative photography projects an environment of social experience emerges. It is an environment centered on the different and common approaches to making, taking or creating images. Some of the specific encounters I wish to concentrate on have emerged from a research project I am working on that uses photography within community-based participatory workshops. As a photographer and researcher using photography, I have long been keen to make sense of experiencing images. More importantly, how can I use photography as data within research if that data is contingent upon subjectivity, affect and power relations? The research I carried out demonstrated that the function of participatory photography specifically and indirectly all photography is predominantly to produce images that create social circumstance. The power of the image is not ‘within itself’ but is manifested in affect. For research purposes, where the data occurs, is in trying to analyse what takes place because of the image. Using small, community based workshops participants were asked to take photographs in response to set briefs and assignments. They were then invited back to discuss their images and their experiences. During the workshops, the images discussed had many functions but primarily they initiated conversations, discussions, and personal narratives. Often this was based around viewing photographs or sometimes hearing how certain photographs were taken or not taken. In these situations, images merely provided a context or the conditions for social interaction. They acted like a prosthetic memory, facilitating new things to take place or collective ideas to emerge. We can describe these encounters with images in terms of affect, as a set of embodied practices where participants created an array of emotions that they used to help articulate thoughts about the world. The significant shift in thinking is to consider how affect presents differently with different encounters, with different circumstances and with different things. These encounters are the point from which things happen; wherein photographs are things that create the conditions for active participation: they make us do or feel something. To interpret the content of photographs themselves can be a somewhat unrewarding task. What is required is way to consider how images can be activated and act upon us as subjects as we encounter them. The workshops showed that producing images of the objects around us and subsequently speaking about those same images us forces confront the world, to engage in it and to invest in how it is. The research suggests that when discussing images and talking about personal narratives the Deleuzian idea of the optical image joining with the memory or fantasy image becomes articulated. This is in part supported by Rancière’s (2009b) observations that the image may refer to three things: “The simple relationship that produces the likeness of an original: not necessarily its faithful copy, but simply what suffices to stand in for it.” Secondly: “ . . . the interplay of operations that produces what we call art: or precisely an alteration of resemblance.” And finally: “the image [is] not exclusive to the visible. There is visibility that does not amount to an image; there are images which consist wholly in words.” To see with the camera is therefore also to speak of seeing and to propose and begin an encounter. It is this multi-layered, multi-functional approach to the image that provides a context for asking why we take and look at photographs. The narrative constructed from this activity delays our final encounter with the object we are looking at. Such narratives are suspended between us and the object, maintaining ‘us’ and ‘it’ at a distance that can never be completely closed.
Jane Bennett (2010), in her book Vibrant Matter describes ‘Thing-Power,’ as something, which ‘refuses to dissolve completely into the milieu of human knowledge.’ She describes the random items she comes across in the street as an assemblage of objects as ‘things.’ Each item provoked affects in her, ranging from dismay at the litter to repulsion at the dead rat. However, she also recognized that there was vitality in the things she saw. The division between matter and life is a likened to Rancière’s ‘partition of the sensible,’ what is possible to see, hear and perceive; what is common but not necessarily shared. In addition, with parallels to the process of looking at photographs, Bennett suggests the vitality of the objects arbitrarily organized together formed what she calls a ‘contingent tableau,’ an arrangement of objects that all depend on each other being there for their existence or truth. This she argues allows things not to be reducible to the contexts into which we set them. They have a deeper value, which is reliant upon relationships to one another and to the settings into which they are placed. They have a ‘vital materiality.’ The material objects Bennett refers to have an efficacy that goes beyond any purpose we may allocate to them. Within the contingent tableau there is a ‘federation of actants’ and these make things happen. When applied to photography, these actants create meanings through their multiple encounters and consequent entanglement with other actants and with ourselves. As viewers, we necessarily bring ‘us’ to the image but we also bring a range of other, sometimes distracting, thoughts views and opinions. We come to the image bearing our culture, our ideology and our history and these entangle us. The experiences we bring with us are also multiple and aleatory and therefore difficult to quantify or measure in any meaningful way. Therefore, we are usually drawn to a simplified account of the image, its meaning and its force. By adopting a view of vital materiality in relation to photography, we can consider a single photograph as a form of contingent tableau. The photograph visually gathers together objects that are seen at the scene, drawing them together into one image. The things in the image are set in a relationship with each other. They are a force in themselves but also a force that demands a useful engagement. That engagement is an encounter that creates entanglement. It is an entanglement emerging from, and with, a complex of narratives, of affect, of power wherein we are activated to do things or respond.
If the single image is one contingent tableau then by collectively considering all photographs in existence, we can address all of them together as one overarching, single contingent tableau; an assemblage of paratactical visual representations. A simple image search on the Internet already embodies this concept, where we can imagine a tableau of every possible image. Looking at photographs inevitably suggests looking at all other possible photographs and as stated earlier, the encounter with the photograph is always one of multiple possibilities. A single photograph insists upon the viewer a particular way of looking at a group of objects. But as viewers we are likely to have multiple views and we are also as likely to encounter multiple images within a fragmented, multisensory environment.
Bennett accepts that the thing power she may have faced could in fact be a function of subjective and intersubjective functions, of memories and affects but she also asks whether she, herself was also an instance of vital materiality; given that humans are also a mass of material and organic parts. She locates herself bodily within the realm of vital materiality. As I have outlined it is possible to express a photographic vital materiality in the terms that Bennett sets out. It is also possible to embody ourselves within photography at a material level. Essentially, the practice of photography is a process that takes the exterior subjects of images and organises them into the interior spaces in our minds. We absorb images and are very much a part of this ‘image system.’ A system that is self-organising. A system where there is no collective decision process; instead there is interplay between different types of images. Such interplay occurs between the images viewed and the reference images in our heads and we respond to these through the perspective of affect. Although photography may suggest intersubjectivity, our encounters with it are also likely to be paratactical, random and without clear connection. We simultaneously are the photograph and in the photograph. We are therefore instances of the vital materiality of photography. The event of any photograph is contingent upon many things. For example, being there, the eye, the subject, the camera, the light, the glass of the lens, the time it takes to press the shutter, the response of the subject to being photographed, the computer that processes the image as well as all the conditions of viewing the image etc. We can group this incomplete array of objects that make a photograph into a paratactical encounter: The image-as-event.
However to wrap a theory around the creative act is inevitably difficult. As William Connolly (2013) has said “The reality of creativity and the demands of complete explanation do not mesh together neatly.” Nevertheless, theory needs attending to and it remains insistent in spite of the reality of any creative act. Victor Burgin (2011) noted that “art can neither be translated nor explained . . . nevertheless art (and creativity) comes into being in a field of determinations.” It is perhaps more useful then to describe what happens when we encounter images than it is to try to find a meaning of an image or locate it within an historical timeline. In doing so we attempt to reveal, following Wittgenstein, not what the image is but how it is used.
We can appreciate that everyone knows ‘how to look,’ as it is something everyone is doing albeit passively all the time. What may be more interesting to consider is how we can understand whether it is possible to stop or modify inert looking. Looking today is almost a ‘taken for granted’ activity. It is something we do with little thought or attention, overwhelmed as we are by the sheer volume of imagery that we encounter. Perhaps it would be more useful to consider whether photographs can be perceived as acting like phone numbers or email addresses, or hyperlinks; seeing them as objects pointing to something else. We should acknowledge them as suggesting some form of action. That images are essentially passive signifiers activated only with our explicit response to them. They are also part of a chain of significance, a continuum of encounters forming part of what Victor Burgin (2009) described as an infinite and perpetual movie of representation. The specific movie we see is, of course, personal and subjective. There is never only one representation, one single encounter. Instead, we move through multiple, heterogeneous, instances that weave together. Our encounter with images is one of constant movement and change for us and for the image. We are always being subjected to a succession of paratactical images projecting themselves into and onto the tiny and short moment of our consciousness. Each image endlessly forms a new connection and relationship. Each constructs and adds to the infinite narrative of representation. Each encounter proposes a new and more complex entanglement. This opportunistic and uncommitted approach to the image may be an indulgence of an affluent and leisured class, who dip into or merely browse experiences. But if we passively look without actually perceiving how images construct worldviews, then it is likely we will not attend to the structure of limited attention spans and boredom. We will overlook the complex formation of encounter as we move rapidly from one image fragment to the next. The image as event, as encounter, requires that we gather the disparate parts that form our experience of the image into an assemblage through which we are able to respond and react. We should also be aware of our own vital materiality, our own embodiment with our encounters with the image. Dealing with these kinds of encounters and their respective fragments is similar to the process Freud suggested where the ‘days residues’ entered the dream. Bergson argues that, “there is no perception which is not full of memories,” (Bergson, 2010). Our perception is not a straightforward reaction with our senses; it is a process whereby details of past experiences are mixed with sense data. It is the ‘signs’ that trigger former images and memories. He argues, however, that there is a core perception, a ‘pure perception,’ onto which memories are grafted. This abstract, core perception is one that is confined to the present moment and is fully ‘absorbed.’ Any affect emerging from our subjective encounters with the image is contingent on that event of perception.
When one image follows the other, in what Thrift (2008) describes as a material schematisation, all kinds of things are brought into relation by the many and the various. These relations happen through individual encounters of one thing followed by the other. Thrift outlines in a different context, the ‘vast spillage of things,’ in which objects call out language from within us. It is the collective character of all photographs, the assemblage of images, which calls out to us and asks that we evolve and act along with them. The power of the image is not in what it represents but in what it draws together and reveals. It is toward an ‘event’, a rupture, that images take us.
Merleau-Ponty in his incomplete final work “The Visible and the Invisible,” suggested that the world as we encounter it is the thing that we see, he points out that if we consider what seeing is, or what the world or a thing actually is then, in his words, we “encounter contradictions and difficulties,” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968). Merleau-Ponty makes a very clear point that refers to the relationship between the dream, the unconscious and the perceived world. “How we can be under the illusion of seeing what we do not see, how the rags of the dream can, before the dreamer, be worth the close-woven fabric of the true world, how the unconsciousness of not having observed can, in the fascinated man, take the place of the consciousness of having observed.” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968). The dilemma is how we can differentiate or even discriminate between the two states. Merleau-Ponty suggests that since we cannot absolutely account for the difference we must count them both as “our experiences,” and that we need to look beyond or above perception to find its guarantee and its ontological function. It would therefore seem reasonable to not limit or link states of perception to the conscious or unconscious processes but instead to group perception into a process or layered encounters occurring within a range of states. According to Connolly, “Deleuze suggests that thinking is nudged, frightened, inspired or terrorized into action by strange encounters. Both Kant and Deleuze call attention to the figurative flash point at which argument ends and recognition or encounter commences,” (Connolly, 2002). Thought processes and perception are not in and of themselves, they are a part of a multi-layered approach to thinking. Connolly cites Benjamin’s analysis of how new ways of thinking emerged when techniques in film enriched ‘our field of perception,’ and Deleuze suggests that an examination of film can help map out the thought of everyday life (Connolly, 2002). As stated earlier the pure perception that Bergson offers could potentially be included into this multi-layered thinking. It is the ‘grafting on of memories’ suggested by Bergson which literally implies this layering.
Within the changed world of the digital image it is possible to identify new forms of a digitally enriched engagement with place-as-event. The most obvious forms of new encounters are those of the Internet and the virtual world of imaging. The network of the digital, Žižek suggests in his foreword to Bond’s “Lacan at the Scene,” screens us, it stands in place of raw perception, acting as a ‘transcendental horizon’ that makes (our) reality meaningful. Once the fantasy object is subtracted from reality, it is not only observed reality that changes but also the observing subject himself, reduced to a gaze observing how things look in his or her own absence (Žižek cited in Bond, 2009).
What is common to these accounts of perception is separation. Žižek suggests it is the absence of the observer that is embodied in the camera itself, separating the eye from the body. It is also the act of perception that is separate from the object, emerging from the viewer as a new re-grafted object, situated into an in-between space. The image sets up certain conditions of meaning but as I have stated those meanings are located outside of the image itself or at least they are indicated by the image but form themselves outside, most usually in our responses, in our fantasies, in our action/reactions or in the grafting on of memories and experiences. This is the use of the image, the function we can most confidently apply to all photography.
It is fairly obvious that if two images are placed together we can ‘construct’ a third meaning from these two. Advertising functions deliberately in this way, placing lifestyle with product to ‘suggest’ or call into action some form of consumption; a purchase of the product or identification with the subject. But what about other less contrived image relationships, including random or fragmentary encounters? What about the intervention of the subject themselves? The dream is the space of randomly associated, visual clues. Parataxis a lose visual network, an unknown (at the time) relationship between disparate things which combined form “an-other.” Expressing the notion of parataxis, Burgin states: “Pierre Bonnard said that he wished the experience of his pictures to have something in common with the instantaneous experience of first entering an unfamiliar room – one sees everything at once and yet nothing in particular. What I want to add to Bonnard’s purely optical picture is the fleeting concatenation of impromptu thoughts one may have at that moment,” (Burgin, 2011). He continues that “there is also the ‘granular-perceptual’ manifestation of the political – an aspect of our everyday reality on an equal perceptual basis to the changing light, a distant sound or a regret.” It is from the paratactical encounters with images that new meanings are formed. This approach, encompassing image alongside social interaction reveals how we can understand a new configuring of the transformative power of the image through our encounters with it. Transference is the process of reassigning meaning or producing meaning from fragmentary encounters and is also an act of re-assigning meanings elsewhere. Perhaps, meaning then is always a priori, always in multiple places awaiting our assembly. Perhaps photography is a process of transference, of deferral.
Borrowing from Žižek (2014), photography’s power is not in what it reveals directly; revealing to us either the unknown or what we already know. Nor is it in its ability to uncover the known unknowns – the things we know that we did not know. Photography activates and unlocks the crucial “unknown, knowns,” the things we do not know we know. It triggers the memory traces, the fragments that do not take the form of explicit recollection. The relationship between image and image, image and thing, things and things, is the boundary my research is beginning to push into. But this is not some theoretical framework, it needs to relate to real world projects where people take or consume images. It needs to bring these ideas together so that when we speak of an image and its power we understand how it activates, or compels us to “take on the shape of our societies,” asking as Connolly has done: “How can we become more like ourselves by becoming other than what we are?” The digital, the multitude of images and the increased speed of things is part of a process of becoming plural; it calls into question the force that creates a world where everyone thinks the same and where everyone is ruled in the same way. Images are actants; their vitality helps us form a social bond, a responsibility and a community. However, this can really only be achieved by consideration of what the image does rather than what it depicts. To understand its function we must see ourselves as a contingent part of the image and we must take account of not one image but all images. This is similar to when we speak a language in that the use of a single word requires a vocabulary of other words to be considered at the same time. Nevertheless, what defines our encounters with images are the changes they bring about in our lives, the affect they have on us which force us to act, to modify how we see and how we perceive.
To conclude, I have proposed the idea of photographs as things; as things rather than objects – a politics of becoming as opposed to being. However, as Connolly (2013) has said: “Nothing is fundamental,” there can be no one infallible account of the world. By recognizing and seeing this we head closer toward understanding how the world really is and that thought is constituted alongside our habits: Habits, which include continuously using the camera to take pictures of our lives. Our current photographic encounters are commonly experienced in a digital space and in interior simulations in our minds. The photograph, today, is easily uncoupled from the digital camera ‘object’ that records our world. In our interior perceptions of photographs, as in computer modelling, we see not a simulation of the world as it appears but the world as it appears to the camera; as though all the world has already been pre-photographed and every image has been anticipated. The power of images is one of encounter and relationships, of a plurality and a multi- layered complexity. It is manifested in relational aesthetics, from the sense of community that emerges from visual encounters. The power of the photograph is process centred, part of a meshwork, an assemblage, an interaction, a materiality. It is the paratactical relationships that go onto facilitate encounters. Power is embodied and in all these things and there is still much work to be done in understanding it in this way. However, we should remember that even those who wield power still only ever have a limited scope of influence but the encounters we have can sometimes change our lives forever.
I would like to thank Victoria Niva Millious, with whom I originally gave a version of this paper at Photomedia, Helsinki in 2014, for the development of the ideas and the arguments, the emails and the continual challenges to my thinking.
L Althusser, Philosophy of the Encounter. Later Writings 1978-1987, trans. by G.M. Goshgarian, Verso, London, 2006.
J Bennett, Vibrant Matter, Duke University Press, London, 2010.
H Bergson, Matter and Memory, Digireads.com, 2010.
N Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presses du Réel, France, 2009.
H Bond, Lacan at the Scene, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2009.
V Burgin, Situational Aesthetics, Leuven University Press, Belgium, 2009.
V Burgin, Parallel Texts, Reaktion Books, London, 2011.
W Connolly, Neuropolitics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2002.
W Connolly, The Fragility of Things, Duke University Press, Durham, 2013.
M Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1968.
D Palmer, “A Collaborative Turn in Contemporary Photography?”, Photographies, 6:1, 2013, pp. 117-125.
S Pink, “Sensory digital photography: re-thinking ‘moving’ and the image.” Visual Studies 26.1 Taylor Francis, London, 2011.
J Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, Verso, London, 2009a.
J Rancière, The Future of the Image, Verso, London, 2009b.
J Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum International, London, 2011.
N Thrift, Non-Representational Theory, Routledge, Oxford, 2008.
S Žižek, Event, Penguin, London, 2014.