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The realities within frames

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image Hilda Tam Hio Man - English language instructor, Center for Languages and Professional Development (CLPD), USJ.

A student showed me a cat photo that she has taken at the centre of the Abandoned Animals Protect Association of Macau. In the photo, the cat is in a cage and its expression seems surprised at being shot. We laughed when we saw the picture and the student said that was her most satisfying work so far. I looked at the picture more carefully and found that the level was not right. When I advised the student that she should have used the grid screen to make sure of the level, she told me that at the moment when she saw the cat, she was too happy to care about the technicalities but to press the shutter.
I blamed myself for having criticized my student’s photo and ignored the concentrated representation within. Photographs in general are seen as medium for representing reality. However, the photographer always has the right to choose the scene and angle that he prefers to take the picture. Thus, that ‘reality’ is framed and flattened, and sometimes, even intervened by purpose (for example, a photographer who takes pictures of flowers may splash some drops of water on the petals so as to make them look fresher). Apart from showing the scene seen through the viewfinder by the photographer, a photograph records the preferences, intentions, emotions, physical and social position of the photographer.
Documentary photographs are commonly recognized as a kind of records of history. However, what a documentary photograph shows is limited and again decided by the photographer. Take the pictures of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake as an example. The earthquake brought about heavy casualty. A photograph of one single victim there is perhaps stunning but it cannot show the serious damage this natural disaster has brought to the place. The photographer chooses what he thinks is more important and representative at the spot and presses the shutter. Some photographers would even stay at a spot for days until a scene appears to be what they have been imagining as masterpieces.
Nietzsche has told us that all realities are formed from a particular perspective which is in no way superior than any other perspectives. In other words, judging the reality by merely looking at photographs is unwise and dangerous. If photographs are egalitarian signifiers of a single reality, there is no need to crave for the signified. It is after all a Sisyphean attempt by the specialists’ obsession with political elitism.
A photograph of perfect exposure and white balance taken by a great master cannot be deemed as better in quality than those taken by amateurs. Disregarding the technicalities needed to take a so-called ‘qualified’ photograph; photographs show the individual thoughts and emotions of photographers and thus are all the same valued.
Technically, the cat photograph is not ‘qualified’ but it acts as a representation that enables the funniest expression of her favorite cat stay forever in her mind. As the audience of her work, I can imagine how excited she was when seeing the cat, how hastily she pressed the shutter and how she jumped and hurrahed when she knew she has succeeded in framing that moment. Overall, photographs contain and confine reality, but it is not necessarily shown on the physical image itself.

©MDTimes/ University of Saint Joseph

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