Although indexicality is usually connected to various claims about truth and resemblance, it is a term that often frustrates rather than elucidates our ideas about what photographs do. Referring to indexicality, Victor Burgin has suggested there are only certain circumstances, for example in relation to the photographs of Abu Ghraib prison, where it actually matters. In these types of cases there is a particular requirement or need for certainty. This is the point when we need to be reassured about the authenticity of images. However, I also believe there is a further point that can be made in relation to these kinds of horrific photographs. I suggest that we find them obscene not because of any real notion of indexicality – not because there is a relationship of image to reality – rather, our real disgust for these images derives more from their visibility in the public domain. In other words, we know these things happen but we do not necessarily wish to be shown that they are happening.
Pierce suggested the indexical properties of a photograph mean there is a point-by-point correspondence to nature. One example he uses is how smoke from a chimney is an index of a fire. In photographic terms, indexicality refers to the notion that whatever was in front of the camera and its lens produced a trace that remained long after the object had gone. The index therefore implies a referent and a connection between image and reality. However, I suggest, indexicality is generally formulated as a counterfactual proposition and is based on crude visual determinism. In other words, we assume largely because something looks similar that there is or was a relationship between these two things.
We believe an object was there and the photograph somehow allows us liberty to continue believing this. In this way it seems to sustain a model of reality outside of image, outside of representation. Crucially, as we see more and more photographs the guarantee of any relationship is one that is dependent on certain stable visual descriptions. This being underpinned by the familiarity or repetition of visual tropes we see in popular photography. I see photographs, as signifiers, helping to maintain the identity of its objects. They turn a place into a picturesque scene, they create a fantasy from the ordinary or they define a single moment out of an extended period. However, if we actually encounter these objects in real life we are frustrated by our search for their true essence or as Slavoj Žižek suggests: “we search in vain for it in positive reality because it has no positive consistency” (The sublime object of ideology, pp 104).
There is a further thought here, which I hope to develop in this paper. It is possible to consider how photographing objects – like the naming of things through language – is a necessary and radical contingency of signification. This particular force of signification happens retrospectively and only because we are already within a causal chain of communication. For example, the food we photograph and eat in a restaurant acquires a particular status when we photograph it first and then subsequently after we have eaten it. The food gives us, not only nutritional value, but also some additional value as an object we have inserted into representation. Its insertion into representation also changes the taste of the food.
I suggest it is possible for indexicality to have a different function from a simple correspondence with reality. If we understand that a photograph can only be possible because of the subject it captures, so that without a subject there is literally no photography. We can say that a photograph exists simply because an object was at some point subjected to a photographic process. Indexicality, as the correspondence with an object photographed, becomes the means through which we can retroactively justify photographic necessity. So when an object is photographed the photograph requires and signifies a presence of an object but it also signifies the very presence of photography. It is from this position that we can begin to rethink the terms of indexicality, not as the direct correspondence between nature and image, but as the trace of something photographic. The problem then, is that often, when we want to speak of photography, we become distracted by the narrative of what it visually shows us of reality.
We interpret images symbolically; we look for meanings hidden within them; or we interpret them as some kind of fantasy of the real or masking a kernel of truth that is contained somewhere outside. But a key ontological problem is not reality but the appearance of reality. Here, indexicality tends to suggest that out of, or from, reality a form of appearance can emerge. However, I believe, we should be less concerned with the question as to whether it is possible to penetrate through the veil of appearances to some kind of true reality and be more concerned with how anything like appearance can occur from reality itself. In addressing this, I suggest, one thing needed for representation to emerge within reality is a frame – or a device that overlays and mediates. In this way, what is seen “directly” becomes something that is now being “seen through” something else.
Although in following this line of thought we should be aware, and this is crucial, if we expose the mechanism that sits behind appearances, we do not then suddenly reveal reality. Instead, I argue, in these circumstances, we are confronted with a gap or distance from reality. So that demystifying the frame does not reveal any neutral reality: instead it suggests there is an invisible, other and already enframed reality which comes first.
Perhaps another example of how reality tends to frustrate us is when we experience something intense – violent, funny, emotional, disgusting. This is not usually met with a recognition of it being real. Usually it is experienced as a lack of reality, as a momentary unacceptance of the standard real. In other words, as Kant has outlined, in order for reality to feel real it must fit within our own coordinates of what we understand to be real.
Maybe one of the most radical moves of rethinking the index, is not to investigate the opposition between image, object and reality but to seek out some unachievable reconciliation? At this point I feel it is worth considering the direction of travel implied by indexicality. Somehow indexicality moves from an object in reality, to its trace – in the form of image and back again. This very notion of index is, as I have said, based very much on something visual, on some notion of something being there at a particular moment.
Theoretical disagreements around photographic indexicality usually only concern themselves with visual similarity and resemblance. They do not, for example, take into account the extra information or meta-data that can be attached to, may reside within, is captured by, or influences the creation of digital images. When considered in the context of these aspects of the image, contemporary thinking associated with indexicality appears decidedly under theorised. Indexicality should no longer be only associated with a visual truth. It is now joined to the truth of the meta-data written by the highly mobile camera onto the image. Via the screen of the camera, reality is simultaneously and directly overlaid by image, such that image is no longer discrete from reality.
The increasingly instantaneous link between image creation and image transmission is facilitated by mobile devices, networks and data connections. Creation and transmission, in this sense, become a singular event. The transmission or broadcasting of images in real time has now become a standard feature of social media. Once shared, images may then gain new information and significance through time coding, tagging or social media interactions. They may also contain information such as geo-positioned data. These additional layers of information reinforce a different kind of indexicality: a very new form of the ‘being there then’ part, of photography.
If the existing photographic discourse is to develop it needs to take into account a new conceptualisation of photography that incorporates the consequences of: an image/screen and reality overlay; indexicality as a concept appended by image meta-data; and mobility as a mediating environment. It needs to express how each of these creates a new perception that is a concurrent experience. Such that objects, overlaid by informational enhancement, augment our phenomenological experience. In this sense, digital overlays bring a richness and depth of experience mediated through the doxa of the camera, the computer screen and software.
These controlling interfaces tend to model and organise the world rather than accurately represent its underlying disorder. They render the displaced object of reality. When viewing the world through a camera it is possible to see technical data relating to camera settings, facial recognition overlays, focus points, contacts, GPS, time and date information. Depending on how it is distributed, an image may also go on to include a variety of tagged information such as the names of the people depicted in it. It may attract ‘likes’ or comments or other social media interactions. This mixture of representational and informational data differentiates digital photography from its analogue counterpart. Photographs attempt to explain not only the visual world they also order the circumstances in which we encounter the randomness of the material world.
This then is where photography provides some ground to work upon. Photography – and with it contemporary cultural identity – assumes its subject contains, within them, some thing photographically recognisable. Since our experiences of the world are largely mediated by images of the world, we might even ask in what sense are all things to be considered ‘photographic.’
In “Reading the Figural” (2001), D.N. Rodowick suggests a linguistic reading of images is both interrupted and disrupted by the different spatiotemporal organisation of contemporary forms of representation. His account of the figural reconciles image and text as being discursive in a non-linear, non-uniform and discontinuous sense. For Rodowick, the figural is not a combination of image and text, it is an interstitial space located between them both that conforms to the properties of each but can be reduced to neither one nor the other. The figural is binding a network of image and text into a new form. I suggest the underpinning organisation of computer code and algorithmic manipulation, expresses something of how the force of the figural is fashioned. This complicates indexicality, in Pierce’s terms, since visual correspondence relies upon linguistic binaries of whether something is or isn’t rendered. But the trace in digital photography is the trace of code, algorithms and interactions. In order to update our notions of indexicality we should consider whether it is an indicator of the gap between representation and reality or whether radical new forms of image can take indexicality as pointing not to objects that have been displaced but to the very form that makes image possible in reality. In these terms we might say that indexicality is only possible when we allow ourselves to understand it as pointing to the underlying structure of image. In digital terms this structure of image is algorithmic, distributed and networked.
In summary, if I may return to my point about a retroactive justification. We might say, that every face in the room is a face, which appears in advance of all the selfies that will be taken of it. We are then find ourselves in anticipation of the next photograph, the next celebration of a visual configuration which resembles photography.
Walter Benjamin’s notion of ontological incompleteness of our reality suggests that reality points toward its own future. In this way, we can only redeem the past through our future reading of it. Perhaps then we can only fully realise indexicality when it is transposed from being an indicator of that which has been into the presumption of that which will be. In todays currency of photography, this then must be the potential for all things to become image.