In a hyper-digital age where seemingly anyone with a phone or camera of any kind can label themself a “photographer,” the art form of photography is a fantastic tool used in the hands of amateur and professionals alike to communicate their versions of reality.
Photography has become so commonplace that outside of professional or academic settings, some people take a more passive approach while observing an image and its meaning. Professionals and people studying photography will discuss an image’s meaning in terms of the different rules and elements that make up the artform, whereas other people look to them to explain the text surrounding it, or simply, as an example of the content provided. Images, it is argued, require much more active engagement in order to synthesize the text it encapsulates.
Unlike text, photographs are elusive in their meaning and intent and to that end, those things change depending on who is observing the image as well as the person who created it. The art of photography is highly interpretive, which makes it an interesting case for reflecting reality. It’s a tool that is uniquely situated to capture “reality” in a way that is true to the content photographed but highly dependent and influenced by the creator, the audience, the time period it was made, the materials used, and where it is displayed. Even something as simple as changing a lens can change the way a person’s face looks in a photo.
According to Isabel Lea, since it is highly dependent on outside factors, a “photograph is never a true representation of a scene, but a representation of how we see the world.” The rules and elements of photography themselves are situationally dependent and change meaning in different cultural contexts, but that doesn’t stop people from contributing to the artform and including images that represent their topics of interest.
Business Insider shows examples of how something as simple as changing out a lens on a camera can drastically change the photo that is produced:
Cross-cultural kids and photography
Amateur photographers may not understand the different elements and rules of photography but nevertheless choose to participate in it like the way Cross-Cultural Kids interact with their second culture. Cross-Cultural Kids are socialized to change learned behaviors in a way they are largely unconscious of and yet they still perform them as they code-switch between the different aspects of their culture and identity.
A more seasoned, professional photographer, however, takes their time to interpret scenes and work in the fundamentals in order to get a certain desired image. Professional photographers can be compared to Cross-Cultural Adults who have to actively engage with the aspects of their identity and culture that are different and consciously adapt to the new norms.
Aside from comparing people with culturally fluid identities to different levels of experienced photographers, CCKs/CCAs/TCKs/TCAs have the potential to use photography to their advantage using the skills attained from forming their identities among difference as a way of expressing the hidden identities they hold in an artistic way.
In the book, Third Culture Kids, Pollock and Van Reken say that “one way we learn our sense of identity is as the world around us mirrors back to us who we are,” and what better way to process that identity than to have people who are like you contribute to different fields in positive ways?
Photography can be used as a tool to persuade, convince, challenge, explore and express a variety of topics and identities. Photographers hold a lot of power when determining the parameters of their photos while simultaneously having no ownership over the interpretations people attribute to them. As such, it is important to critically examine photos that circulate, what they might mean depending on what is left out of the photo and especially whether the photo has been modified in any way.
Some modifications are minor and might not change the meaning of the image while others drastically change the subject matter of the photo.
An example of this in history is during Josef Stalin’s “Great Purge” where photos were altered in order to influence the public’s perception of the USSR. When his enemies happened to disappear, so did their likeness in images they had taken with him.
Throughout history, photos have been altered in order to control different narratives just as photographers themselves form the narratives that surround their own pictures.
It is because of this that we should treat photos the same way we treat people, as multidimensional and contextually situated and look deeper to find hidden meanings or hidden diversity that might change the meaning behind their actions or, for photography, the images themselves.