Over break, I was lazily flipping through a photo album and came across an old family photo with my cousins. I was transported back to 2013. The photo itself is joyful –– my cousins and I are laughing at the camera in matching outfits. Before the camera was pulled out, however, all six of us were crying, my mother reminded me of this important facet of information, and it completely changed how I looked at the photo. I don’t really remember why I was crying, but it likely had something to do with not getting a piece of candy or not being allowed to watch another episode of “Caillou.” What struck me as so intriguing, however, was the fact that the picture and the moments surrounding the picture had completely different connotations. Essentially, context matters, because it informs how we perceive a situation based on its photographic documentation. Honesty took no precedent, and my association with that family photograph was linked to the lighting and joy portrayed by a professional photographer. I began to think more about the significance that photographs carried with them, and realized the careful balance it requires to present honesty through a posed art form.
I began to think more deeply about this. Can a photo truly capture the essence of a moment? My answer is no. Even so-called candid photographs on social media have an element of planning and structure to them. You may ask your friend, “Take a candid shot of me drinking my coffee.” You are not asking your friend to capture the truth, you are literally asking them to take a picture of you appearing to be honest, but posing and faking that honesty. It all sounds quite absurd.
Photography, in this way, is both an interesting tool and a dangerous weapon. In the age of Photoshop and filters, it is increasingly difficult to delineate reality from fantasy. You see what people want you to see, and photographs are a vessel for that kind of curated messaging. From a picture, how can you glean the emotions demonstrated in that moment? Your friend shows you a picture from their summer vacation of them smiling on a beach somewhere, and immediately you are led to believe that their entire trip was sunshine and bliss. However, for all you know, the trip could have been a disaster. They might have missed their flight. That picture they showed you could have been taken during the ten minutes of sunlight they got on their trip because the rest of the time there was a torrential downpour. Photographs are just a snapshot, a millisecond, that cannot fully capture the emotion of a moment. It is such a fleeting memory, it is essentially meaningless. This just demonstrates that photography is inherently dishonest. It doesn’t present reality honestly or truthfully. Instead, it is founded on ideas of posing and curation.
Conversely, the photographs most suited to portray reality are those that stumble on it naturally. They are not searching for the perfect moment, for the right lighting, or the right “meaning” — they see something that tugs at their heart strings and impulsively snap a frame. Take one of the most revolutionary photographers of the modern era: Dorothea Lange. Her most famous photograph, “Migrant Mother,” depicts a woman in the throes of suffering during the Great Depression. The wrinkles on her face illustrate her pain and perseverance, as her children tuck their faces into her neck. Lange was able to portray reality, and to make viewers understand the meaning of an era because of the honesty she brought to her art form. She captured the essence of a moment and a memory because she came into it with no expectations. Even more spontaneous photographs take a lot of planning and consideration. The difference, though, is the fact that these photographs still present an honest and true narrative. “Migrant Mother,” though planned in terms of lighting, and through the thought that Lange put into her work, still presents an accurate portrayal of an era marked by suffering and poverty.
Reality, then, is in the moments that are not structured, and honesty appears where there are no expectations. Photography is a great example of how reality can be misconstrued and manufactured, but to take an art form that is predicated on posing, and find snippets of truth, is a unique gift. To find snippets of reality, in a world composed of curated fantasy, through photography is a skill that is only possessed by people that are honest with themselves. I find that the pictures I like most of myself, are the ones where I am not posing, where I have no expectations, and I am just wholly and truthfully myself in my body. My emotions are captured not because I am trying to look a certain way, but purely because I was so engrossed in reality that I had no choice but to let myself shine through.