A quest for the ultimate, beautiful, meaningful picture

What are you looking at?

Let’s get back to basics, before we wander further off into the realm of estethics: photos are meant to communicate. I want to show you something, but as communication theory discovered, and as postmodernists made popular, the three elements sender – message – receiver are different. What are my intentions? What is embodied in the message? What do you see?

Most of us think of words or text, when we think about communication. Like this text. That is a difficult enough medium to pass a message from me to you. Quoting Karel van het Reve again: ‘it’s impossible to write so clearly that you are not misunderstood.’ In my work, which involves writing a lot of texts, I am acutely aware of that and I try to write clearly, I repeat my message in different words, I use ‘metatext’ to tell readers what I intend to do, what I am going to do, and I summarise to tell them what they should have remembered from the previous section. For the attentive reader there is redundancy in the text, and ‘tedium’ (as my former colleague Guy Neave once called all the reasonings and references that make up so much of social science writing). And still people quote me wrongly! Or students don’t understand and they fail for their exam. Sad, isn’t it?

One of our famous sayings is that a picture says more than a thousand words. That would mean that an average scientific journal article of about 6,000 words could be replaced by 5 or 6 pictures. My problem is that with a picture, I don’t know which 1,000 words I’ve captured! I know, of course, that something in a situation caught my attention, fired a signal in my brain that ‘this is a nice picture!’, and triggered my finger to push the button. What caught my attention, why was this man with dog a nice picture? I think, looking at it a few weeks after taking the photo in Taiwan, that it was the contrast of the large man’s head and the little dog, the fact that the dog was being carried instead of running on all fours along the pavement, and finally the curious yet friendly way both man and dog looked up to me as I held the camera aiming at something behind them (a garden, now no longer in the picture). Those are three potential messages in 55 words (way less than 1,000). Is it one of the three, or the combination of all three those messages, that makes this into a good photo to you? Or do you read something else in it that I did not intentionally put into it?
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