Photography’s Silent Voice


"Photography's Silent Voice"

I find a special kinship between the art of photography and the hidden emotions, the silent voice and the frozen poses of the mime.

Street mimes can be disturbing in much the same way as powerful photographs. Both are intrusive. Both speak a silent language that relies upon nuanced gesture and suggestion. Both have the potential to arrest the gaze, energize the imagination and hold the viewer spellbound.

Like the mime, photography can be intrusive, even aggressive. Turn your back on a street mime, and she will likely copy your gait, mimic your attitude, and give onlookers a good laugh at your expense. The photographer sometimes does the same, only the result is more permanent. I wonder about the impact of Diane Arbus' photos on her subjects, and if regrets about her work might have contributed to her suicide. Susan Sontag once wrote an entire book dedicated to the proposition that photography is intrusive, aggressive, and that to photograph something is in her words "to appropriate it." Sontag may not know the first thing about how to how to take good photos. But she has a point.

We take photos for many reasons. To establish a factual record. To preserve a moment in time. To capture a memory. To share a vision, feeling or idea. Thanks to mass media, photos have the power to change perceptions, perhaps even convictions. A photograph can redefine and re-establish relationships. And not just visual relationships, but the emotional relationships between subjects, models and viewers. The silent voice of photography has changed peoples' minds, their lives, even the course of history.

In subtle ways, then, to take a photo of someone or something is to alter the delicate fabric of relationships that tie that person or thing to us and to the world at large. "I just think it's important to be direct and honest with people about why you're photographing them and what you're doing," writes Mary Ellen Mark. "After all, you are taking some of their soul, and I think you have to be clear about that." 


Originally posted to 2/29/04

“Cirque de Sorrow” 2004