Thursday, October 1, 2020

Consider an Apple

I've written a couple of things about how photography divides what feel like normal human interactions into peculiar halves, that we don't have great machinery for understanding. I'm going to, um, just start writing something and see what happens. Buckle up you sissies!

Suppose I hand you an apple. There is an infinity of possible human transactions this could be part of, but let us pin down a couple. Perhaps you are my child, and I want you to eat a healthy snack. Perhaps I am a grocer, and I am selling you an apple. Perhaps I am a friend, and you and I are friends who share things. Perhaps I hope to become such a friend, and my gift of the apple is an attempt to foster the growth of that relationship.

If you are my child, I expect you to eat the thing. If I am a grocer, I expect you to pay me for it. If I am a friend, perhaps I have no expectations, but a smile and a "thank you" would be nice.

We can run in to all kinds of trouble here, but the troubles are generally a result of us having two different ideas about what's going on. If I intend to sell you an apple, but you accept it as a gift, awkwardness can ensue. Nevertheless, we both have a normal human idea of the transaction, they just don't happen to line up.

A transaction in which, say, I allow you to take my photograph, can also have many shapes. Perhaps we are friends, perhaps I am a model, perhaps I am your child, perhaps I have specifically asked you to photograph me. I might expect payment, a cookie, or prints. There might be almost any blend of factors in play, just as I might be a friend or relation of the grocer who sells me, or gifts me, an apple.

We treat the photograph, a little, as if it were an apple. Or a chore, a piece of work. I agree, for a small fee, to stand still in front of a backdrop, or you agree as a favor to give me a print or a file of my own handsome mug.

As with the apple transaction, there is scope for misunderstanding due to mismatched expectations. If I expect a fee, and you expect a favor, we may find ourselves in an awkward situation. Unlike the apple, however, a photograph opens up a whole world of new problems.

An apple is a real thing. If I give it to you, you have it and I do not. There is a zero-sum symmetry here, and our expectations include that. You understand viscerally that I do not have the apple any more, and that informs the transaction, our human interaction. A photograph, not so. It's an abstraction, a thing that emerged from our interaction. Like an idea, its ownership feels ambiguous, we're not certain who had it before, and who has it now.

The transfer of an apple leaves the giver with an apple-shaped absence, and even a dog understands that it may be socially necessary to fill that hole with something in exchange. A photograph taken leaves no photograph-shaped absence in the subject's life. Is it necessary, socially, to give them something? A dog, certainly, would be helpless to provide you with an answer here.

An apple is temporary. Once eaten, it is removed from the equation. The apple is no longer relevant. A photograph lives on, with its power to conjure the subject. It is as if someone keeps eating our apple, over and over. How much should I charge you for apple you can eat over and over? If I charge you for ten apples, but you eat it twenty times, have I been cheated?

To treat the taking of a photograph with the same logic as the giving of an apple is simply not going to work.

The transaction of the apple can remind us, if that's necessary, of the vast breadth of human/social interaction that is possible around even something so simple as handing someone an apple. The photograph, the taking of a photograph, subsumes all that and adds to it complexity that is beyond the ken of dogs, beyond the ken of children, and arguably beyond our own ability to make much sense of.

There's hope, though. We muddle through each apple, feeling our way through the potentially ambiguous ground by pure instinct and almost always getting it right without even noticing. With the photograph, perhaps we can trust ourselves to do OK much of the time as well.


  1. Doesn't an analogous thing happen in college football. Everyone involved swims in big bucks, including the photographers who shoot the games, everyone except for the football players themselves, who as students are not supposed to be paid. Now I understand how those rules can and are flouted, how could they not be, but still.

    Imagine how it feels for an injured college player whose performance earns money for many people but is then thrown under the bus because of a bad knee and a one-sided contract. I could understand why someone like that wold feel cheated to have a picture of himself providing a benefit to everyone except himself.

    I am having a difficult time getting a handle on these issues.

    1. That's a really interesting analogy, thanks!

      I think these issues are inherently Very Hard and often completely intractable, so, don't feel too alone here!

    2. The *star* players are induced to play by generous 'scholarships'. Some are recruited by pro teams well before they graduate, by offers of candy bars and chip packets. Or possibly something more valuable, who knows?

  2. I'm long gone from the academic world but if I was running a seminar to discuss the things you've been talking about in recent blogs, I'd be tempted to throw this film clip into the mix: