Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What We Bring

Take a look at this picture here, to start with:

I'll give the context after the jump.

This picture comes to us by way of Lewis Bush over at disphotic. It's a picture from a guy named Muhammed Muheisen, who's got a collection of pictures of refugees in the Netherlands being housed in former jails. Follow the link from Lewis' post if you like, there is a bit of variety in the photos.

Now what's interesting to me, here, is a couple of the remarks Lewis makes about this specific picture:

The tiered walkways and identical doorways behind him makes clear this is an institution, specifically a prison and by no means a modern one.

But the unintended, unspoken message of employing such a building for such a purpose also seems inescapable, [...]

What this particular picture says to me, the way I instantly read it, is "motel". I've stayed in any number of motels (and hotels, oddly enough) with almost this exact architecture. Here, for instance, the interior of quite a decent hotel in the heart of San Francisco, the Hyatt at Market and Embarcadero. Replace the ugly sculpture and fountain with a basketball court, and you're got Lewis' "obviously a jail" design almost spot on.

Now the point isn't really that Lewis is a doofus and a blowhard, the point is that what he sees and what I see, in the very same picture, are completely different. Lewis is making quite a bit of hay commenting on the plight of the refugees from Syria and what a bunch of dickheads the Euros are. And that's all well and good, that's probably a drum that needs beating.

Still, where he sees "inescapable subtext" I see "hotel".

Virtually every other picture in Muheisen photo essay makes it more clear that this thing is a prison, so probably Lewis was polluted by that context. Whether he then found Panopticon on wikipedia, or knew about it in advance I do not venture to guess, but connect the photo essay to the idea he did.

I think he selected this picture, the least jail-specific of the lot, because he could also connect it to classical paintings via the man's pose, and that had to feel pretty good.

Regardless, we see a couple of things:

What we bring with us can profoundly affect what we take away from a photograph. We see it, the photo contains truth, which we perceive, and we are therefore convinced that what we see is both true and obvious.

This includes the context carried by a photo essay. We skim the whole thing, and the whole alters, perhaps, how we see each individual picture. Lewis, having seen closeups of heavy steel doors, cannot escape the perception that his selected frame is obviously a prison when, to me, it is obviously a hotel. I have not seen the steel doors.

And this finally brings us around to the value of multiple pictures. A single picture can only show us so much. Multiples can show us more. One picture can give us a detail (a heavy steel door) without much context, but which then renders the wide frame (a "hotel") quite differently, and perhaps more truthfully.

Or, let us be honest, untruthfully.


  1. Hard to decide where the truth is here - and I do support your notion that from the looks it does not have to be "prison" - but the difference is the steel door: open or closed.

    The number of refugees in Europe was overwhelming, and the solutions found to shelter them neither were not are equally good. It remains to be seen if an air inflated tent with a limited number of showers and toilets (like we have them in Germany) is better suited or worse than an prison building.

    Re. the images: certainly the context makes it. But even in the first image you could - just by changing the vantage point and the angle of view - create different settings: from being imprisoned to being protected, and your perspective might vary from your situation. After 3 years under varying threats from trafficker of all kind, your position could very well be different from that of a European photographer.

  2. To me, this shows the brain damage we display when we say that we know what a picture means. A picture does, and should, mean different things to different people, even those who share the same cultural reference. I've seen siblings grow up to be very different people, because they were treated differently by their parents (first born-more discipline and responsiblities and grumpiness from parents, sickly child-more latitude and fear, etc). Our visual journey is unique to us.

  3. Re-purposng a prison to house people escaping from paces where they cold be shot, bombed or stp on a land mine, and hwere finding enough food has become a serious problem is a good thing. It allows significant numbers of poep;le to esxcape to a land where they are physiclly secure, sheltered and fed, and have time and space to build new live. It would take much longer to build special accomodation for them. It is a lot better than being marooned in a tent in a refugee campe somewhere.