Julian Tanase Photography

My Minox journey continues…

Preconception and expectations versus reality of a photograph

Preconception and expectations versus reality of a photograph

One thing I noticed over the years was that every time I was visiting a different culture than mine, many photographs I took were rubbish. Or at least this is how I judged them to be at that moment in time, upon processing and scanning the negs. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a perfectionist, far from it: the exposures were all right, processing was all right also (give or take), subjects were well, interesting, and so forth. What I meant by rubbish was the feeling I had when looking on what a certain photograph; you know, that moment when you thing “what the heck was I thinking”. I am sure some of you went through this.

But the feeling was going somewhat deeper than that. It was smelling like failure to me; many times I thought I had a good shot of some foreign city or place, but on scanning the film I was disappointed. What I saw on the film didn’t confirmed the image I had in my mind of that particular place. The resemblance of what I thought I photographed (the meaning of it) and what I actually got was simply not there. These two images were as far from one another as they could  possibly be. Again, I am not talking here about the light, exposure, framing or subject, but of the feeling of the place where the image was taken, upon looking at the final image. Let me tell you that frustration is taking over fast, when this happens. I just hope this makes sense.

Many times, while photographing foreign places for the first time, I thought to be a good idea to try and submerge in the local culture, food, people, you know, the full thing. And I did that, at least I thought I had some of those places figured out. Took a lot of photographs, and I really pleased with myself for thinking I had covered different aspects of that culture in a meaningful way. Went home, processed the films, scanned the films, looked at the contact sheets, got really frustrated because of the said films. None of those frames confirmed my initial feeling of getting it right; the images were there all right, but the feeling wasn’t.

And then it hit me: there was nothing wrong with the photographs, they were all right; it was just that the camera showed me what I told her to see. The thing was that I had expected for the culture and differences to jump at me from the images, and they weren’t. And I realized I had expected my photographs to match the idea of that culture in the way I imagined it to be. You know, the way tourists imagine the people of say, Tirol province to wander about the mountains all day long, yodelling and wearing lederhosen. Or the Texans carrying a Peacemaker on their belt, purposely walking the streets to have a high noon gun fight, necessarily in front of a saloon. Of course we can find such situations in theme parks or re-enactment sort of thing, but they are not necessarily the reality of the place, because they, well, are not.

The reality can be changed in some ways by our camera, but only because we make the decision to photograph something which is not exactly the reality. In any case, it is our own doing, because we “force” the camera to record something decided by us, some scene which we know it is not depicting the reality. We are looking (and often look for) to photograph places which match our preconceived idea of that place, not necessarily what the reality is. We are acting on stereotypes, and because we never visited those places before, we believe what the movies, media, books and stories tell us; we thus have a preconceived idea of how a place looks like. In almost all situations, None of these preconceptions have an anchor in the reality, at least I haven’t met with such.

So I believe this is the where the difference lays: our preconception and expectations versus reality of a photograph. There is nothing wrong with our photographs that we take in a foreign place, first time visited. The film shows us what we really have found there, and because of our preconceptions, we look at the photographs and see nothing of what we expected. Preconception versus reality, this is what happens here, I guess.

Of course they show the reality, how could they not? OK, perhaps we can “alter” the said feelings by immersing deeply in the local culture, but do we understand it ? Do we really see the differences which exist in the reality, or we just weigh and measure these by the things we believe we know for a fact? As someone smarter than me once said: “Our eyes may alter the reality, our heart may find the path to understanding, but the camera is a silent witness of what exists,  without lies, tricks of downright altering the world in front of us”.

Rant over, I just hope this all makes a lick of sense.