Photographic Memory

Of the many means available for documenting life--film, photography, oral history, and writing--the photograph is one of the most accessible and incontrovertible. Talking with Tom Rankin, director of the Center for Documentary Studies, we explore the power, and the purpose, of an image.

Rankin: man of a thousand words

Rankin: man of a thousand words. photo: Les Todd


Daily we are surrounded by images--on television, in the newspaper, in art. In order to stand out, to draw attention, does a photograph need to shock? If it doesn't, does it fail to impress upon the viewer the importance of an issue?

I don't think so. I think successful photographs don't necessarily take their energy from shock. In documentary work, you find photographs making the viewer look at something they wouldn't otherwise look at. It may be something very harsh, like Lewis Hine showing child labor pictures.... Somebody sees that in Boston, and it is shocking...and may move them to do something or change their opinion. But there's another tradition in documentary photography...of drawing attention to the things that are not necessarily negative--maybe ordinary life in the streets of Durham. They're drawing your attention and fixing an image based on a whole constellation of aesthetic ideas, and that may freeze the image in your mind.

Susan Sontag talks about how, at times, you remember a photograph more easily than you do a moving picture. And certain photographs get emblazoned in our consciousness. And I don't think it's because they are shocking. It's just the power of that image. There is a humanity, a universality to them, but there's also a particularity that allows you to know it is based on light, shadow, texture, and color.

In our celebrity-worshiping culture, a photograph of a famous actor or athlete is unfailingly accompanied by his or her name. When a person who is not a celebrity is portrayed without a name, what is implied?

For me to photograph someone and not identify them suggests that either I didn't know them or that this individual is supposed to stand for lots and lots of people, and that in itself can be a very dehumanizing, undermining kind of representation. One of the things that has happened in the last twenty years in the discussion of documentary representation is a better sense of the responsibility of the documentarian not only to communicate broad issues through their work but to be sensitive to the individual lives they explore. If I were to see an exhibition of migrant farm workers and not learn anyone's name, it would be the exhibition equivalent of driving by a field of migrant farm workers at seventy miles per hour. How could you really feel any kind of human relationship at that speed? One of the reasons so many people are drawn to documentary work is a longing to connect with other human beings.

What is the purpose of speaking for the photograph--what is an appropriate caption?

A photograph with no caption is left very open. You may not know anything about it--who took it, who the subject is. You may not even know where it's from. And you take that same photograph, and you add a very minimal caption, maybe just date and location, and it takes on another kind of meaning. Lewis Hine is a good example of this. You take a photograph he might have taken of a boy in a glassworks factory and put under it "This boy is eight years old, goes to work at six a.m., and leaves at eight p.m. He gets paid a dollar a day." That totally shifts the meaning of the photograph. No longer are you focusing on how beautiful the light is falling on his head. All of a sudden, it is about his condition, and your response to his condition becomes the energy of the image. Documentary photographers wrestle with this all the time. In the classes I teach, I ask my students: "What is it you are trying to communicate and what are the best tools for getting that message across? You have anything you want at your disposal. What is your point of view? What is your agenda?"


If a photograph of suffering is beautiful, does it, as some argue, shift the focus from subject to medium? Should photographers abstain from making scenes of suffering beautiful?

I think beauty is underrated. When I think of a photograph being beautiful, I think of the aesthetic qualities of light, texture, shadow that an image has and how that works on one's senses. Beauty doesn't mean that it's fluffy and easy. It means that you want to look at it, and that it engages one's eyes and one's heart and mind. And that can happen with a photograph, the content or the reality of which is very harsh and troubling.

There are many photographs that work with that tension. Take Emmet Gowin's aerial photographs of nuclear waste sites. Nothing could be more troubling than the reality of a toxic waste site. When you first see the photograph, though, that's not what you see. Your senses are attuned to other things. I think that a photograph that is not beautiful, that doesn't have that aesthetic component--why would you look at it? If you did, you probably wouldn't for very long. There is no way for us to define what beauty is. But you have to ask, Is it compelling? So the challenge to anybody taking pictures is to make photographs that people want to look at.

Do the media have a responsibility to show images, even though they may be horrific?

I think we all feel, at a time like this, that we're being inundated with images. "Do we have to see more of this? More dead Iraqis, dead troops?" But to turn the faucet off altogether would be to deny that this horrific thing is going on. I think sometimes TV news plays to just the basest notions of the voyeur. It's repetitive. It has news value to a point, but after that it doesn't give us anything new. It's not a human rendering of what's going on. I think in many ways it distances the viewer from what's actually happening.

It's easy to look at the war in The New York Times and not feel threatened. It's one of the dangers, and it's why, when you find somebody who shows it a different way, it knocks you out of that complacency. Photography, by its definition, distances us from the experience in the frame. As much as a picture relays what is happening there, it reinforces the fact that you are not there. It's a double-edged sword. Images can take us places we've never been, but they can also create the sense that it's not my problem, it's those people's problem, those within the frame. And, at the risk of oversimplification, that duality is both the challenge and the power of the photographic image.

--interviewed by Patrick Adams

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