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The world of transient signifiers

Politics of Desire in Digital Photography

Before coming to what particularly this paper wants to discuss in the context of ‘ethics in photography’ let me draw your attention to some reflections I had in the first instance of my engagement with this topic. The title, ‘ethics in photography’ certainly points to at least two theoretical vantage points from which one can start the discussion. Firstly it can be assumed that photography, unlike painting or drawing, reflects ‘the reality of the world’ as in a mirror. And the truth, reflected or represented by photography may not always be appropriate to be viewed by all of its viewers. Then we have to search for an adequate and acceptable moral standard in respect of the representations by photography as well as its circulation among its potential viewers. Secondly we may consider photography along with painting and drawing as a mediated representation of the reality; a field of social practices where the articulation of knowledge, power and technology within the social systems of modern societies takes place. Then the question of ethics or moral consciousness in mediated representation prompts us not to make value judgments but to make access to the deep intra/inter subjective relationships of our own beings which coordinate our sense of the world. It is important to note that in both cases ‘the nature of representation’ plays a central role in discussion.

So, let’s ask the fundamental question: “What is representation?” Christopher Prendergast suggests two definitions for the term ‘representation’. The first, he writes, “(representation) is the sense of represent as re-present, to make present again, in two interrelated ways, spatial and temporal”. Here representation is assumed to be authentic though by referring to something that is not there. It has the capacity to make visible, in the here and now, something that was present in a different here and now. In the second definition Prendergast describes ‘delegating presence’ which is the substitution of something or someone else. This is most commonly a condition with language. Here representation allows a term, image or agent to substitute for an absent object, idea or person. Now consider the nature of representation in photography; what kind of representation is it?

Right from the invention of photography there has been a common understanding that it reflected the world as such or more exactly it was taken to be so intimately associated with the object depicted. The fin de siècle avant-gardism in art was, among a lot of other things, a reaction to this notion of the ‘photographed reality’. But at the same time one could also remonstrate against this by accentuating the ‘pictorialism vs. straight photography episode’ from the history of photography. In the words of photography historian Naomi Rosenblum, “the dual character of the medium – its capacity to produce both art and document – [was] demonstrated soon after its discovery … Nevertheless, a good part of the nineteenth century was spent debating which of these directions was the medium’s true function.” It is the dual characteristic of the medium that makes the photographic representation and thus its ethical evaluation problematic. We have to take into account the truth-and-false hood –production in photography as Umberto Eco has written, “If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used ‘to tell’ at all”. In the first glance we may believe the photographic image to be true as what Susan Sontag says about it, “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture” and then proceed to distinguish the different ways in which it tells non-truths. Mark Roskill and David Carrier put it as “The ascription of false-hood to visual images rests on three possible claims or charges … (1) that of fabrication, as opposed to the showing of what does or could reasonably exist; (2) that of making things appear as they are not. . . or (3) that of pretense, as opposed to sincerity, honesty, or some equivalent term”.

Having recognized the dual character of the photographic image, now we may widen our search by incorporating some other theoretical locations such as that of post-structuralism in general and of semiotics in particular where photographic image or for that matter all kinds of representations are reckoned to be constituted  with signs. In visual culture studies, a more recent addition to the academic realm of cultural studies where visual images are treated as cultural constructs, semiotic analysis poses challenge to realism (the notion that images can objectively depict something) and to intentionality (the notion that the meaning of images is produced by the person who created it). In effect, it acknowledges the variable relationship(s) we may have to representation and therefore images are understood as dynamic; that is, the significance of images is not understood as a one-way process from image to the individual but as the result of complex inter-relationships between the individual, the image and other factors such as culture and society. ‘Sign’ is the central semiotic notion which is defined as a two-fold entity consisting of the signifier and signified (Saussure). The signifier is defined as the material vehicle, or the “physical part of the sign, the actual substance of which it is composed (sound waves, alphabet characters etc.)” (Danesi 1993:24). The signified is defined as the meaning or mental concept to which the signifier refers. Charles Sanders Peirce, one of the pioneers of semiotics, has claimed that the photograph should be considered an indexical sign, rather than an iconical one, that is, a sign based on the contiguity subsisting between the expression and the content, not on their similarity. The contiguity of indexical sign in photography may be considered a particular kind of one as it is enough for the referent to expunge the expression plane of the sign. If this is the case with conventional photography we may observe a more curious role that contiguity play in digital photography, the ‘heir apparent’ to photography. More than ‘subsisting’ between expression and content, here contiguity disguises as expression and as content ceaselessly. It is from this premise that I would like to start the next section of this paper which tries to study the power relations with which the subjectivity of spectatorship/consumption is formed in digital photography.


“from the moment of its sesquicentennial in 1989 photography was dead- or more precisely, radically and permanently displaced” – W.J. Mitchell

It does not seem too much to say that we are living in a world of transient signifiers if you can spare sometime observing the flood of visual images we come across every day; digitally manipulated with no clue for their referents. Turning photograph into computer data surely makes a radical change in the founding order of the medium. The vulnerability of digital data to manipulation is, for digital photography, a point of departure from its predecessor’s contiguity with content. The meaning generated by indexical signs in digital photography depends on the context of reception and whatever presumptions we might have concerning the image and thus points to the inter-subjective relations in the consumption of sign.  So the end of analogue photography not only marks the rise of a new technology but also with that a new epistemology which insists on broadening the horizon of our search concerning ethics, meaning and culture. This has been perceived as a serious threat by those industries that relay on photography as a mechanical and hence non-subjective provider of information. “(a) Anxious to preserve the integrity of their product, many European newspapers at one point considered adding an ‘M’ to the credit line accompanying any image that has been digitally manipulated” – writes Geofferey Batchen. But without being annoyed by the question of ethics, newspapers and magazines have manipulated their images. For example, in June, 1994, Time magazine invited much public scorn after publishing a digitally darkened mug shot of O.J Simpson and its editor had to argue in defense of the apparent racism in the image that “the digital alterations lifted a common police mug shot to the level of art”. This double appeal- to art and to essence- is what makes digital photography persuasive in the discourse of power relationships. In the absence or loss or lack of the ‘original’ what these transient signifiers signify in our daily visual experiences is our own inter/intra subjective relationships with the hegemonic discourses.

The spectatorship postulated by internet pornography is an area of study of utmost importance in this respect as this genre embodies some basic symbolic mechanisms regulating contemporary society. For this purpose, I would like to study the widely circulated fake photographs of the so called celebrities. This particular genre has two aspects to be studied: first they are digitally manipulated photographs; second they are of identifiable personas wherein these personas themselves are ideological constructs.

These photographs are faked and sometimes they even state this explicitly. Now look at them more carefully: what they are trying to obliterate is the marks of manipulations which otherwise could have qualified them to be approached as artistic collages. It means, on one level they acknowledge their fakeness in connection with its public behavior but on another level they emulate the power of authentication or what Suzanne Langer calls “the primary illusion of fact” (Feeling and Form, 1953) usually associated with analogue photography. To put it another way, here the “indexicality” of the sign relies on a special kind of contiguity which may be named “fragmented contiguities”. The spectatorship postulated by this “scopic regime” is “schizophrenic”, shifting from outside to inside, i.e. from the ocular to the inconspicuous desire within the subject.

It is a double code playing hide- and- seek. There is no certainty not only about the ‘having-been-there’ of that particular body ‘represented’ in the image but also about the very existence of it. It may not be a body at all. It can be a collage of different parts of different bodies. Thus it has become impossible for digital photography to be discussed in terms of the image of a person’s identity. This is a point of departure from what Barthes finds as the beginning of photography. In ‘Camera Lucida’ Barthes writes: “Photography, moreover, began, historically, as an art of the Person: of identity, of civil status, of what we might call, in all senses of the term, the body’s formality”. It is the notion of body’s formality that is being problematized in digital photography as what we see is nothing but a fragmented image of the body which is meant to virtually fulfill a desire for the wholeness of a body of an identifiable persona which again is a blown-up, mediated rhetorical image. It is through a schizophrenic act that digital photography ‘deterritorializes’ an “ocular body” into a “reified body”.   In that sense a digitally manipulated photograph is a process rather than an object. In a Lacanian sense here our object of desire is a way for us to establish coordinates for our own desire. This process certainly involves some power relations that have recourse to the ideology of desire i.e. the creation of desire according to the consumer culture and its virtual fulfillment. By admitting openly its fakeness, it addresses the “impossibility of the real” and thus assumes the stature of “the imaginary”. Here a consumer/viewer of this image experiences two kinds of psychological processes. At first he responds to this image from a view point of authenticity. This response has a historical aspect: a covenant between the viewer and the medium.  Secondly he realizes that this is a fake photograph. Then what one sees is not different from what one imagines. The viewer is confronting his own imagination. The photograph creates a situation where the viewer becomes capable of dealing with his imagination as something ‘real’. I would like to call this kind of spectatorship, what we experience more often in internet and other mass media, schizophrenic reification.  Here the historical founding order of the medium- the value of presence- is a camouflage accentuating authentication. In a viewer this camouflaging brackets the fakeness of the photograph and exerts its power to create and fulfill a desire. Thus it creates an illusion of fulfillment of a desire of “the public” to own and control the body of a “public figure” and becomes a reproduction of the capitalist relations of production and consumption as the status of celebrity is a capitalist value. As Slavoj Zizek points out it is through fantasy, we learn how to desire. In the heart of our desires there is always a lack since from where it germinates does not correspond to anything in the real. It is this lack that ensures we continue to desire. Then coming too close to our object of desire is a threat as this would uncover the lack and reveal its nature as fantasy. Lack is necessary for our desire to persist, so that, we tend to keep a distance from our object of desire and allow it to be driven by its own impossibility. By claiming overtly its fakeness and by ‘deterritorializing’ the ocular into the reified the manipulated photographs of celebrities create the necessary distance with the object of desire and let the viewer believe in his ability to fantasize and create new desires.

When everyone becomes a photographer as what is happening nowadays, the amateur/professional distinction becomes blur in photography. Any event can be recorded and circulated publically. This flood of images has disrupted the mystiques of the public and private realms which had been kept mutually exclusive. A taming of the subversiveness of the camera is observable here.  One who records becomes an ‘inactive witness’ incapable of intervening the event. What is recorded becomes irrelevant in the age of digital manipulation. Though the ‘new ability’ of the camera to intrude on private spaces creates certain anxiety, this is only a transitory anxiety as there is always a possibility to deny the authenticity of the photograph. When th peresupposition of ‘the presence’ ends photography as a medium will start experiencing a crisis. The notion of ‘the presence’ was the founding order of the photography. And now it fails. What is emerging from this juncture is not a new version of the old but is a new medium which is being formed and circulated as an ideological construction. The founding order of this new medium lies in its ability to address, shape, regulate and control the fantasy of the viewer. It is also capable to confront ‘the dissenting voices’ by playing up its characteristic of inauthenticity. Thus digitally manipulated photographs become a more powerful ideological apparatus than language. In short, the advent of digital photography and the end of analogue photography can be described as a transformation of meaning and value in the field of visualities and hence a general change of epistemology.

(Paper presented at the national symposium on “ethics in photography” at Goethe Institute, Max Mueller Bhavan,New-Delhi, 30 August 2014)

Bipin Balachandran

Bipin Balachandran is an art historian, academic and visual artist. He has extensively published articles and studies on art and visual culture and presented papers in national and international seminars. He is also the author of two books, including a novel in Malayalam, and director of three documentaries. He has been a U.G.C subject expert for the project of e-content developing in visual art studies and resource person for various projects supported by the Kerala state government.

Published on July 28, 2016


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