Assignment 4 Essay
The image can be anything you like, from a famous art photograph to a family snapshot, but please make sure that your chosen image has scope for you to make a rigorous and critical analysis.
● If you choose a well-known photograph, take time to research its context – the intentions of the photographer, why it was taken, whether it’s part of a series, etc. Add all this information into your essay to enable you to draw a conclusion from your own interpretation of the facts.
● If you choose to use a found photograph, a picture from your own collection, or perhaps one from an old family archive, use it as an opportunity to find out something new. Avoid telling us about that particular holiday or memory – look directly to the photograph for the information. It may be interesting to compare and contrast your memory with the information you’re now seeing anew from ‘reading’ the picture so intensely.
It’s not enough to write an entirely descriptive or historical account of your chosen image. You must use the facts as a means to draw your own conclusions about what the picture means to you. You may wish to apply what you’ve learned in Part Four regarding translation, interpretation, connotation, signs, punctum, etc., but be sure you get the definitions correct.
Follow thought associations and other images that relate to the discussion, directly or indirectly. Look at the broader context of the image and its background and specific narrative as well as your personal interpretation of it and what thoughts it triggers for you. Follow these associations in a thoughtful and formal way. Allow yourself to enjoy the process!
There are many good examples of writing about single images (e.g. Sophie Howarth’s Singular Images), which you may find helpful to read before attempting your own. Take note of the level of critical analysis and aim for a similar approach in your own writing. You may write about personal connections but ensure you express yourself in a formally analytical and reflective manner.
The photograph I have chosen for this essay is from George Rodgers. Titled A Dutch Jewish boy walks among the dead, Bergen Belsen 1945.
George Rodger was a British photojournalist who covered events of the Second World War, as well as peoples and wildlife of Africa and the middle east.
He was one of the first photographers to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and his photographs appeared in Life magazine becoming a benchmark and reference point for the atrocities and human suffering they depicted. Rodgers later wrote of his experience:
‘It wasn’t a matter of what I was photographing, as what had happened to me in the process. When I discovered that I could look at the horror of Belsen, 4000 dead and starving lying around, and think only of a nice photographic composition, I know something had happened to me and had to stop. I felt I was like the people running the camp, it didn’t mean a thing (Rodger quoted in Shepard 2006 p. 102)’
The experience at Bergen-Belsen was so profound that Rodgers gave up being a war correspondent and concentrated his work on Africa and the Middle East. In her book, George Rodger, An adventure in photography,1908-1995, Carole Nagger talks about Rodger’s images (and others) and the nature of photographs,
‘with the visual coverage of the holocaust, documentary photography came into the public eye with a new status as irrefutable evidence. Questions were raised: Can horror be represented? Are documentary images capable of informing those who look at them? (Nagger 2003 p. 141)’
The photograph above was printed on April 30th 1945 in the ‘Atrocities’ edition of Life magazine along with other images from Margret Bourke-White. They had a profound impact and reached a wide audience, and that impact has lasted. Susan Sonntag in On Photography..refers to these photographs and others from that time,
‘The ethical content of photographs is fragile. With the possible exception of those horrors, like the Nazi camps, that have gained the status of ethical reference points, most photographs do not keep their emotional charge’
On seeing this image -for the first time- in an old edition of Life magazine, I accepted it as evidence that these unbelievable atrocities, these acts of barbarity took place. I still do. The main element of the image I remember is the boy. But I have changed since then, and I have encountered the image in different contexts with different words and the meaning of the image has shifted. The image itself has not changed and its meaning is limited by what’s actually in the photo-its denotative parts-it will always denote a boy walking among the dead, piled corpses, huddled groups of people, trees, a road etc, but that can never explain how we came to this situation or as British MP Mavis Tate quoted in Nagger put it,
‘you can photograph the results of suffering but not suffering itself ‘(Nagger 2003 p142)
However, when I read, deconstruct and apply the tools of semiotics and, or use the different codes at my disposal, the photo offers up a much more intricate (enriching doesn’t feel right for this image) and complex experience highlighting the malleability of meaning driven by its connotative nature. Simply put, I didn’t get the full picture at first glance.
Looking at the image anew, I take in the denotative elements (the subject matter, what’s there within the frame) -brought together in a composition to gain my attention, I experience what Barthes in Camera Lucida called the ‘Studium’,
‘application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity. It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings’
The boy whom the eye is compositionally drawn to, is somewhat incongruous and his presence is amplified by a series of opposites- he is alive and vertical while the bodies are dead and horizontal, he is clean and well dressed, the bodies dishevelled and dirty, he has his life in front of him- theirs is past and over.
Using the language of semiotics, the photograph and its component parts are the visual signifiers, the signified is what I think when I see the picture -people lying horizontal, dishevelled, unmoving, indicating death, the young boy-youth etc. taken together they create a sign and give the image a meaning.
I can further unpack meaning through connotation – whereby I interpret what’s there and this is influenced by many factors, my worldview, culture, the passage of time and the context of how I saw the image-in this instance, that context plays a big role. To date, I have encountered this image with three different titles that anchor and direct its meaning.
When I first saw the image the title below it said,
“A boy strolls down the road among the bodies near camp at Belsen”
this was the title used in Life magazine April 1945 edition. The website for Life Archives differs:
“German boy walking down a dirt road lined with the corpses of hundreds of prisoners who have died of starvation near Bergen extermination camp” (https://www.life.com/photographer/george-rodger/ accessed 02/07/2022)
The final and last caption I’ve come across is in ‘George Rodger, An adventure in photography,1908-1995 by Carole Nagger. Taken from George Rodger’s notes it reads,
A Dutch boy Jewish boy walks among the dead, Bergen Belsen
Depending on the title, the image has very different meanings. If I read it as a German boy walking among the dead, then it completely transforms the meaning of the image as the boy becomes implicated with the perpetrators of the atrocities-he is relatively well-fed, clean and his stroll through the camp surrounded by dead bodies could be seen as German indifference to what went on-he becomes a symbol for German indifference or complicity. And there is more. The image in Life was cropped on the right-hand side hiding some of the bodies. When I saw the full image in A3 format I was struck by the faces of the two women (bottom right) staring back at me- once you notice them they don’t let go as many of the other bodies’ faces are hidden or turned in another direction. This type of ‘sting’ or ‘puncture’ is what Barthes describes as ‘Punctum’. It ‘pierces’ the ‘studium’ and leaves it’s mark. This is subjective and different for each of us.
Even after the passage of time (and because of it), the image still holds its emotional charge but as the layers of meaning are peeled back I end up with questions that the image prompts and cannot answer alone. Why did one publication depict the boy as German and another not? Why were editors reluctant to mention the word Jew in the title of the photo nor the article that accompanied it?-historical research has indicated widespread anti-Jewish sentiment in the US and Europe. As I peel back the layers of connotative meaning I ‘see things you never thought you would see when you stop looking at the image as a strictly historical record’ Sealy 2019 p69:S.Hall 2008). That said, I still accept the image as evidence of the events that happened and the questions it poses enrich my reading of it. I think of the boy and wonder what kind of life he led -I would like to think the people walking behind him were his parents and he had a happy life. In the context of the photo, and what it depicts, I am grateful that he survived and it sends the message that life goes on regardless.
Further Reflection based on tutor feedback
I agree with my tutor that when looking at a historical photograph we come to it with some ‘baggage’ about the image, its context and the reputation of the photographer, this makes it harder to be objective. Stripping away the ‘rhetoric’ around an image requires discipline and can photography anyway be understood in a totally objective manner? Time also plays a role in how we see an image
Today, as each new generation views work that becomes more distant from its origins, interpretations can become more speculative within contemporary academic tropes.
Howart, Sophie, 2005, Essays on remarkable photographs,London :Aperture Foundation
LaGrange, Ashley, 2005,Basic Critical Theory for Photographers,London: Taylor & Francis Group
Life Magaine Archives:https://www.life.com/photographer/george-rodger/
Nagger,Carole,George Rodger,Adventures in Photgraphy,1908-1995, New York:Syracuse University Press
Price, Mary, 1994, A Strange Confined Space, Standford: Standford Univesity Press
Sealy, Mark, 2019, Decolonising the camera: Photography in Racial Time, London: Lawrence and Wishhart