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A nineteen year old with a camera in rural Norfolk. http://rosajoy.com

Friday, 19 February 2010

Photography and Pain

Some ramblings (significantly inspired by Susan Sontag's thoughts.)


Here is my thinking: it is pretty simple. There are two ways to photograph pain. You can take photographs of your pain, or you can take photographs of somebody else’s pain.

Taking photographs of somebody else’s pain cannot be art. This is because if you take a photograph of a model, the emotion they are showing in the image is fake. They are modelling – ie, posing – and so their emotion is not real. This is not photographing pain. This is photographing somebody’s depiction of pain.

There is another side to taking photographs of somebody else’s pain, and this is journalistic work. A photographer in the middle of an air raid can take incredible, powerful photographs of a mother lying over her dead child. It can look, in some terrible way, beautiful. Artistic. But it is not art. Although it is a photograph of true pain, it is a document of the moment – a moment that happened in someone’s real life, not posed or pretended by a model – and so it is journalism.

Put it like this. If a friend came up to you and said, for instance, “I feel like crap today, and I want you to photograph it in an artistic way”, and you started to take pictures of them, they would not be showing you pain. They would be thinking about their pain in an artistic sense, and presenting it as such. It would not be pure. If the friend came up to you and said, “I feel like crap today, and I want you to photograph it”, and you started taking pictures of them, this would be journalism. If they ignored you or walked away, in essence forgetting the camera, no matter how “artistic” your photography, it would be not be art; it would be journalistic. You are simply documenting what they are doing, and in doing so presenting the way that they feel.

So, here are my real questions. When I set out to take a photograph of myself – me, the photographer – crying in a wood, and I want it to be artistic, is this journalism or is it art? And why would I want to do take that photo in the first place?

Let me think about question one first. Can I really ever show my own pain to the camera? Or am I simply substituting myself for one of the models mentioned above? This is difficult. Self portraiture sits in a unique place in the photographic spectrum, purely because it blurs the line between the private and the public.

A professional photographer will take photographs to be sold, to be made public; this is the point of the trade. The images are of someone else, and so either journalistic or modelled. A self-portraitist takes photographs of themselves, and so can seamlessly integrate the private (their emotions) with the public (brought about by the physical act of clicking the shutter.) They can forget the camera, as they sit on the wet ground by the flooded lake, and cry and scream and not think about the aperture speed or the framing and the light. These things have all been set up before the shoot. At the point when the shutter clicks, they can be forgotten. Set on automatic, there is nothing to tie the photographer-subject to their physical, public machine – their camera. The public and the private can take place simultaneously, and completely separately.

The tears in those photos are real. The screams in those photos are real. It was only when I returned and uploaded the shots to the computer that the private and the public merged: I began to select the shots which I thought best represented what it was I wanted to represent (more on this later.) At that point – when the artist-subject starts making artistic decision – that is the point when the photographs become art again. But this art contains raw emotion. They public and the private are merged.

So, the second question. Why would I want to take this photo in the first place? Well, firstly it could be argued that wanting to depict pain as “art” glamorises that feeling. And, well, that is simply wrong, isn’t it? It does not sound appetising, I agree, but ultimately this is an enormous question, because it is asking: “Why do we look at art?” Most simply explained, I think that people are drawn to emotion – real emotion. People have an instinct which tells us when something is true and when something is fake. There is a kind of sickly fascination in watching others in misery (why else would we tune in to reality TV?), but the guilt that goes with that is vaporised the moment the thing we are watching turns out to be “art”. If something is art, then it is (by definition) not real. We are not looking at a photograph of a mother over her dead child (that would be journalism), we are looking at something which has been staged. But, as we’ve established, self-portraiture does not have to be staged. So why do I want to show people true pain in the disguise of “art”? Because there is beauty in it. Because people enjoy not the act of watching another’s misery, but in watching their revival. In seeing the way we can pull ourselves out of those dark depths. True pain, paradoxically, proves hope. I think the last image in the comments of the set I refer to shows this best. If it were the last shot I ever uploaded to my stream, that would have been the photograph I’d chose.

So, I argue that showing pain as “art” proves hope. Oh really? If I parade it on Flickr, am I not attempting to leech sympathy from anyone who looks at it? Well, devil’s advocate, no. When I uploaded the shot, people were sympathetic (I received one particularly lovely flickrmail, for which I am very grateful.) But this was not the reason I uploaded it in the first case. Firstly, it represented the way I felt that week (it being part of my Fifty Two Week Project), and secondly, it was powerful and real. It made people feel. People like that. It was a good photograph.

But there’s one final point to this question. I have talked about why I wanted to make this kind of image in the first place, but I haven’t explained why I felt taking the image itself would be beneficial. To Me the Subject, that is, not Me the Photographer. Me the Photographer benefits from ending up with a good photograph. But surely Me the Subject has to go through a horrible (cold!) experience in order to get that photograph?

Well, no. Taking the photograph is itself a beautiful release. On the day I took those photographs, I felt the emotion tossing and turning in my stomach until I got out to the woods and sat down. Screaming and crying where nobody will come and find you can be wonderful, because you don’t have to think about acting in a certain way. (This assuming, of course, you have forgotten about the camera.)

And when the photograph comes out, is it not difficult to look at? (You said that the photograph contains real pain, real emotion. Surely, then, you feel that emotion whenever you look at it?) Well, that’s interesting. Photography simultaneously makes things more real and less real – but that’s a whole other essay!

Either way, it helps. If photography makes things more real, then being presented with a photograph of your true pain allows you to see your emotion in a physical form: within that photograph. You can hold it in your hand. You can analyse it. And you can also tear it up.

If photography makes things less real – if it fictionalises the real world – then the photograph fictionalised your pain. It makes it easier to handle, because it becomes less real. It is contained in a picture instead of inside you. You can turn it into something else, something more beautiful. It is entirely at your will.

These are my thoughts on pain and photography, and there is a photograph about pain that I want to take soon. It is about skin and depression, but mostly it is about beauty. It will help me explain things, and it might help you feel things.



  1. This is beautiful. Such an explanation. I think all your points about "self photography" blurring the line are really spot on. I see self portraiture much the same way.

  2. Impressive thoughtful entry Rosa, you are as talented in writing as in photography

  3. That was very beautiful and thoughtful and generally amazing. I really enjoyed it.

  4. Wow! Thank you so much for this post! It has helped me see a whole different light in my pain and photography! For me I often don't realize the pain I put into the supposed random poses I do. Then when I look at the photo later I see that it was a release for me, and the pose was something I subconsciously chose to show the emotion I am feeling that I am not even aware of. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!