Metaphors matter – in photography and in justice
July 7th, 2012 by Howard Zehr
Our metaphors matter – in photography and in justice
As a photographer, I’ve often reflected on how frequently photographs serve to divide rather than create connections between people. It is so tempting to emphasize the “otherness” of subjects rather than what we have in common. As a result, photographs often leave subjects feeling degraded and violated. They undermine rather than build a sense of community.
Photography can exploit or it can respect. Its impact depends on how it is conducted. That, in turn, is determined in subtle, often unconscious, ways, by how we talk and think about what we do when we photograph. How we do photography is affected by how we view photography and that in turn is affected by the images and metaphors that shape our language.
When we think and talk about concepts or, in fact, anything that we cannot see or touch, we compare them to other things. Consequently, most of our ideas about the world are couched in images and metaphors.
When we talk about justice, we often “right” wrongs or “weigh the evidence,” using the image of a scale. In the western world, we talk about time as if it were a commodity: we “save” time, we “spend” time. When people of faith try to comprehend the mystery of a Creator, we often rely on human images such as father or mother or judge. In such cases, we are using something we understand to comprehend and symbolize something we know incompletely.
Our metaphors subtly shape how we see and react to the world. When we talk about a “war on crime,” for example, we are using the metaphor of battle to describe a social problem. This metaphor in turn reinforces certain stereotypes and assumptions. It emphasizes the “otherness” of offenders, disguising the fact that they are much like us. By objectifying an “enemy,” the war metaphor allows us to justify all sorts of actions against those who have caused harm. This metaphor creates the false assumption that the solution lies in weapons, in “outgunning” the enemy, in deterrence through fear.
In photography, the words and metaphors we use are profoundly disturbing. We “shoot” or “take” a photo. We aim our camera. The language of photography is predominately aggressive, predatory, acquisitive, imperialistic.
This militaristic image is reflected in the design and marketing of equipment. Cameras with their protruding lenses often look like weapons and are often designed to put in front of our faces like masks or guns. And they are advertised this way. A famous lens manufacturer announces that its “new snub-nosed zoom shoots to kill.” An ad for a photo lab has a cowboy holding a camera like a gun against a western sky with a “wanted” poster on the wall behind him. A store for professional photographers advertises that the company is “responsible for over 2,876,431 shootings.” It touts its “arsenal” of equipment and promises that its service will “blow you away.” We call our compacts “point-and-shoot” cameras.
The way we actually photograph, unfortunately, frequently reinforces this image of photographer-as-aggressor. Often we approach photography like a hunt, stealing photos and collecting images like trophies. We sneak photos with a telephoto lens without the subject’s consent. We use the camera to avoid interacting with our subjects. We treat the photos as commodities with no input from the subjects about how they are portrayed, how the image is edited or where it is used.
Is it any surprise, then, that subjects feel violated and that photos so often divide and degrade?
Fortunately, there is an alternative way to approach photography.
When we photograph, we do not actually reach out and take anything. Rather, we receive an image that is reflected from the subject. Instead of understanding photography as taking, we can envision it as receiving. Instead of a trophy that is hunted, an image is a gift.
In reality, photography is a matter of opening ourselves to receiving. Such photography means cultivating a attitude of receptivity, an openness to the unexpected. This approach is more like meditation than a hunt.
Conceived in this way, photography requires respect for the subject. The subject plays a crucial part in our creation and thus involves a reciprocal exchange. As photographer John Running says in his book, Pictures for Solomon, “Making a photograph is usually a collaboration between the photographer and the subject. It doesn’t matter if the subject is a landscape, a still life, an animal or a person.” As a result, he says he tries to photograph “with care, respect, truth and wonder.”
If we are committed to this approach, our images should seek to convey respect, not arouse pity – to humanize rather than depersonalize.
Full collaboration and reciprocity between photographer and subject are not always possible. Nevertheless, we have a choice. Photography can be an act of piracy or a form of meditation. If we recognize images as gifts, if we cultivate an attitude of receptivity rather than acquisition, then our photography will certainly be affected by this in positive way.
Only when we photograph with care, respect, truth and wonder can we create photographs that encourage rather than destroy life-giving community.
Whether we are seeking justice or doing photography, our metaphors matter. In a future entry I will look more specifically at some justice implications.