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Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The Roots of Meaning

A few days ago one of the people I consider to be a basically superficial klout-farmer (but by no means the only one, god help us all) on social media made this remark:

If you don't ask questions, you won't get answers. If you don't listen carefully you won't understand the answers. Photography in a nutshell.

Now, forgive me, but I think if you're going to characterize some remark as "X in a nutshell" there should be at least some small thing that's specific to X in the remark. Asking questions and listening to the answers is a great idea, but it applies equally well to architecture, taco making, and photography.

I found this to be essentially glib nonsense, and said so.

To my astonishment, a chap who I consider to be quite thoughtful and intelligent charged up guns blazing and informed me otherwise! He unpacked it into a surprisingly lengthy treatise on diversity in photography, with a special emphasis on photojournalism!

Which, ok, fair enough. This is one of those glib epigrams upon which you can project anything at all, and it is indeed designed for that purpose. This is a dopey remark designed to let you project your own ideas onto it, and then subtly attribute those ideas to the fellow who made the remark, and conclude "what an intelligent fellow, he agrees with me on so much!"

I'd kind of like to throw some shade on the other fellow, the one who unpacked the remark into a treatise on diversity, but I really can't, and my heart isn't really in it anyways.

The point is that so much of the meaning we make of things comes from within ourselves. It's bonkers.

Given a profoundly open snippet of language, we can project pretty much anything we want onto it. We could interpret is as reminding us that we need to ask a lot of entomological questions, and listen to the answers, if we want to photograph bugs. We could interpret is at reminding us to be engaged and interested, when we're taking portraits. All of these interpretations, and infinitely many more, might well make this glib snippet feel smart and on-point.

But we're the ones bringing all the meaning. The words are just a trigger, a key that unlocks, and all the meaning was inside us already.

And so thus with a photograph, no? Especially a photo with no context. If we can make such hay out of mere words, with their relatively narrow and strict definitions, imagine what we might make of a photograph.

We see the window into a little world, and we fill it in, with things from inside ourselves. Not merely what's out of frame, or what happened next, but what the people in the frame are thinking, what the meaning of the actual frame contents. It's practically all us. The photographer can maybe guide, a little, can maybe hint, a little.

It makes the whole affair a bit daunting, some days.

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