Photography, in a way, acts as part of an echo chamber. It enforces the experiences of life as fact through the ‘storage’ of moments in time. To quote from Berger, we would often see the quotation of appearance as truth, for an untampered image can do nothing more than show what it represents. The interpretation, however, it left to the understanding of the viewer
Plato’s Cave is an allegory still applicable to life as we currently know it. The allegory remains relevant because all that changes with time and technology are the shapes of the shadows we choose to believe as fundamental to our existence. The chains that bind us are never truly unlocked as the shadows convince us to stay and we remain comfortable, chained to the shadow play before us.
Life in totality remains unknown to us, but in its current form, it is understandable through the processes we have developed and been given to understand it. For if we were revealed the whole truth of existence, we wouldn’t be able to comprehend it, in the same way, that a person brought up in the Cave were to venture out and meet the wide world. It would be bright, scary and very different to the shadow plays used to justify and dignify cave life.
This Cave acts as a storage point for the human existence, and the shadows themselves become analogies for existence and the object of justification.
The Cave acts as an echo chamber of the illusion we face every day, that is, the life we accept as our truth. We’re likely ignorant to a plethora of misunderstood truths and functions of our wider universe, so we accept only this which we have before us. Photography functions as the shadow puppets on the cave wall, and as part of the echo chamber that is the Cave itself.
What I mean by this is in the very same sense of the prisoners viewing shadows on the wall chained in their Cave. They know no better than what is shown to them within the Cave. This Cave acts as a storage point for human existence, and the shadows themselves become analogies for existence. The objects of justification both for the relevance of remaining in the Cave, and also the relevance of their individual existence in the Cave. This is, in my opinion, is the fundamental function of a photograph in relevance to existence. It affirms what we know and believe due to its repeatability and thus assigned definition ‘truth’.
Think about this for a moment, if you took a photo of a person standing next to a building, the expected outcome of that photo is the very image you took. This would affirm your time and place in relation to the time and place of the person you took the photo of and the structures that exist around them. The outcome makes sense, therefore so does your place amongst that outcome.
If, however, the photo returned the appearance of a Llama, rather than of a man standing next to a building, the image wouldn’t make sense contextually. It would be broken, or a gag, as the rules around why the Llama appeared wouldn’t be visible or understood by us. It would also make you question what you saw and thus where you were (especially if the result continued to occur randomly against our expected outcome)
Collectables, as Sontag referred to them, of reality
Susan Sontag writes on this in her book ‘On Photography’. In her first chapter she explores these elements and no less outlines the value of the photograph in the echo chamber of existence; Earth and the compartmentalised elements of every day life, the idolisation of the things we must have power over, (such as a parent photographing every child moment of life experience as validity of the child’s experience, but also their self-relevance) and how photos relate to that. These actions result in the expected outcome to affirm our belief of existence in itself.
It does, however, become more baffling the moment you begin to add layers of complexity to the existence of photos. If you took the sum total of photographs a person took throughout their life, you would have a relatively understandable storyline of their life. The same can be said of a family too. But the moment you start to introduce friends, communities and even city scales to this metaphor, you begin to blur the lines, complicate the timeline and also nullify the value of an individual photo in the string of photos.
It’s difficult to argue that if you took the collection of photos taken across the world itself, we would then be able to uncover a total image and story of the world itself. Preferably we would just have billions and billions of miniature versions of moments in time. Collectables, as Sontag referred to them, of reality which would be incomprehensible on a broader scale. In more simple terms, the shadows must remain relevant to us in some way to maintain our affirmation of existence. Introducing multiple scales to this function breaks our understanding and complicates reality needlessly.
While photography is viewed in large volumes globally, they are valued at their individual level, and out of chronological order. This general and singular viewing is why they are capable of remaining valid and avoiding the complexities of the larger scales mentioned above. In the same sense, to try to explain the entire world as shadows to chained people who know no better would be impossible and likely be met with resistance, especially if the volume of information is too vast. The shadows must remain relevant to the requirements of those chained to sustain their chained-ness.
If we refer back to the importance of photographs in daily life and compare them to cave life, we see very little difference. Moments in life to us always have some relevance, which functions to affirm our continuity. They are so significant to us that not having them would likely result in relatively negative responses. Think of it this way, it would be more likely that people would be shocked and potentially angry at another person’s parenting if the parent were to say “I do not take photos of my children or their accomplishments at all.”
The surprise and shock would literally come from people understanding that without photos, it falls to the memory to remind us of these moments, and many of us know memory isn’t concrete. The statement also seems to marginalise the importance of life events as not important or valuable enough to capture therein marginalising the child as invaluable too. The statement, is in totality, an argument against the very values of existence and the affirmations supplied by the photos of life.
Continue thinking about this in the following ways and gauge your response: “I have no photos of my graduation, I have no photos of my 30th birthday, I have no photos of my dead father, we took no photo evidence of the criminal” etc. Each one of these poses a threat to our ideation of photographs and its subject matter because we understand the value of each. Their function is so inherently in-graved in our lives that our existence would be at a loss if they were not available to us.
One will only ever photograph that which they wish to not loose, and every moment that passes is likely a lost moment without the trigger of significance to cause memory. Memory, as we know, is subjective the further you temporally travel from it. But it is only ever of our current time and place that we photograph for this reason. If life were to dramatically change, it’s hard to argue that the value of a photograph would remain significant.
Beyond that, one photographs that of relevance of our current time to sustain the illusion of significance in their acceptance of what life is. To not shoot something is to comment on its lack of value and importance. The function of a photograph must result in an expected outcome to affirm the continuity of self-relevance and relevance of self amongst society.
Photographs on a broader scale, function to confirm our place in life as they are a quotation of the appearance of the truth that we know our everyday life to be. They verify our personal relevance but are also a keepsake of the things we fear we will forget with time. On a broader, more complex scale, they do not supply us with the same function they do on an individual level, and it is complex to think of the sum total of all photographs. They allow us, however, to accept our place in time, and albeit we maybe unaware of what ‘true’ existence is, and function to maintain the relevance we have of ourselves and our understanding of our ‘cave’. They supply significant value to our everyday lives, and I could only imagine the fuss that would be caused if all photographs as we know them were destroyed and people were told that photographing was taboo.