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Understanding a Photograph

Understanding a Photograph - John BergerUnderstanding a Photograph – John Berger

I first came across the Brazilian photographer Sabastião Salgado on the tube advertising his upcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy. At Oxford Circus I was greeted by a poster of a Nenet of Northern Siberia turning from the wind toward the camera. The image was black and white. The sky more textured than the land. The Nenet’s cloak was parting open with the swirl of a dervish. For several weeks I saw more of these images on the tube – each black and white like a snapshot taken with the half open eye of a dreamer – each image lodging in my mind for future reference.

So it was with great pleasure that I found an interview with him towards the end of John Berger’s excellent critical introduction to photography. Before reading this book I had struggled with photography as art, trying unsuccessfully to separate photography’s ubiquity from its artistic merit. Photography, Berger argues, is not artistic because it does not interpret or manipulate perception but captures it. It is unique among visual crafts he points out because its “raw materials are light and time” or as Susan Sontag notes in On Photography, “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.”  Henri Cartier-Bresson: “A while back I was offered an award for my ‘creative career as a photographer .’ I told them I didn’t believe in such a career. Photography is pressing a trigger, bringing your finger down at the right moment.”

Salgado appears in the book (as he does in his photography) as a man on a mission. In the interview, entitled “A tragedy the size of a planet”, he says: “All the migrants I photographed once lived in a stable way. Now they suffer transition, and what they have with them is just a small slice of hope. And it is with this hope that they are trying to get another stable position in life.”  

Looking at his work again through the lens of this interview, those sleepy snapshots of the half-waking eye seem all the more compelling. Rather than dispelling my perception of his work, reading his interview crystallises it as his world view. His photographs are a literal representation of his view of the world. I have always found novelists and their work to be divorced yet this interview and those pictures are married and in reading one and looking at the other I feel I have met the man in a way that I have rarely felt an interview with E.M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway or Doris Lessing (for example) to have reinforced my view of their books.

On the civil war in Rwanda: “I know these people from Rwanda from long ago. I came to Rwanda the first time, 1971, as an economist. I came to work in the tea plantations, and the tea plantations had a very equilibrated way of life. Rwanda was not an underdeveloped country, not a poor country, was a developing country. When I came back to this tea plantation recently, all was burnt, all was destroyed. All the effort that all these people made was lost. These people were in the road, in the death. And up to that point, until the days I took these pictures, I was sure that evolution was positive.”

In reading Salgado’s interview I realise the most important thing about photography is not the photograph nor the photograph. It is not the act of representing the image that we celebrate in good photography, unlike in painting or writing, for there is no act of imagination, leap of creative ability in producing a photograph.

More often than not the most striking photographs are taken in the most difficult conditions or are the most unlikely confluence of geometry, timing and luck. Salgado’s images are arresting when pasted on a wall in Oxford Circus, as much because they are striking images as because they are portals to Salgado’s effort and bravery in travelling to Northern Siberia to take those pictures. And in appreciating his effort and bravery in seeking out the picture, we are made aware of the effort and bravery of the subject of the photograph whose life we have shared in for those few captured tenths of a second. Each image a single chance to freeze the world and examine it for everything that it is or as Berger notes of Salgado’s images: “In a strange way in all these pictures, one feels in your vision the word ‘Yes’, not that you approve of what you see, but that you say ‘Yes’ because it exists.”

The Editors

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