Friday, July 10, 2020

The Power of the Photo II

Lately I have been banging on about the idea that a photograph functions to take you to the scene. That is, your reaction to a photograph resembles in important ways your reaction to physically being present at the place and moment the photograph was made. I now intend to see how far this analogy will stretch.

If a photograph does indeed work that way, then we can consider looking at a photo to be a bit like visiting someplace. You go there for a little while, and then you return. This speaks to the power of the photograph as follows:

When we visit somewhere, it is not unusual to be inspired. I shall learn Japanese! or I will start to make my own yogurt!

When we return home, these aspirations tend to fade away. We make yogurt once, and that is the end of it. Perhaps 1 person in 1000 actually takes up a dedicated hobby of yogurt making, or takes a serious stab at learning Japanese. Some small percentage.

In the same way, a photograph, even one which inspires us, which makes us rage, which makes us weep, which makes us shout with joy, is but a short visit to another world. When we turn the page, the inspired reaction begins to fade, and two hours later it is largely gone. Except, perhaps, in a few cases, perhaps one in a thousand.

Suppose, though, that we visit each weekend for 20 years the town which inspires us to make yogurt. Even if only one visitor in a thousand takes up yogurt making, more than 60% of thousand-time-visitors will have become dedicated yogurt makers. The visit becomes more like a class, regularly attended, with a message consistently delivered.

This is, then, one way to think of the difference between a single evocative photo, or even a parade of disconnected evocative photos. It's like visiting Japan, over and over, going to this city or that one, soaking it all in. You are inspired, you are enlarged, it's a really good thing to do, to have done. You are probably a better person for it. What you are not is someone who speaks Japanese. That never happened, though after every trip you pick up the grammar and hammer away at it for a few days. You are still struggling with where is the bathroom? and you always will.

That's OK. Not learning Japanese doesn't make you a bad person. It doesn't mean all the trips to Japan were pointless.

In the same way, endless photographs of Tiger Woods have wrought no particular change in the demographics of golf. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't have been made.

Photographs don't work like that. They enlarge us, the reveal to us possibilities and ideas and situations we would never have seen, or felt. They do not teach us Japanese, they let us experience Japan through the eyes of a foreigner.

Nobody seriously suggests that one can learn Japanese by visiting Japan a lot. That's not really the point of visiting Japan. To learn Japanese, you take classes.

Organized classes are akin to organized media campaigns. To change the demographics of golf, you need more than a lot of photos of Tiger Woods; to learn Japanese, you need to do more than visit Japan a dozen times. They are simply different things. To change the demographics of golf, an organized media campaign might succeed where Tiger failed; to learn Japanese, a series of classes might succeed where relentless tourism will inevitably fail.

Viewing a photograph as a short visit to a mirror world seems to me to encapsulate this difference rather neatly!

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