Aarief Hussain Travel Photography Bhutan, Kashmir, Asia Workshops | Travel Photography and Representing "Real Life": When is a Mistake not a Mistake?

Travel Photography and Representing "Real Life": When is a Mistake not a Mistake?

June 27, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Getting the image sharply focused and avoiding camera shake are of course among the very first hurdles to be crossed by beginners who join me on one of my Asia adventure tours to learn photography. In India and Bhutan, however - and indeed in many of the destinations I visit on my travel photography workshops - I sometimes find that sharply-focused, "technically correct" photographs fail to fully capture the intensity of my experiences as a traveler. They may accurately show what I see, but they don't always express what I feel. Instead, the most evocative photo can sometimes be the one we might initially reject as a mistake.

When on a travel photography trip, we often shift into a different mode of being to the one we're accustomed to in the mundane routine of our lives back home. We are wide-eyed and open to new sights and experiences. Drinking in the kaleidoscope of novel sensations, the stimulation can be almost intoxicating. Under these conditions, and seen in the periphery of our vision, details can become unclear, just as our feelings become more intense. Yet we still perceive and experience our surroundings, albeit in a more impressionistic and emotional way: less focused upon concrete specifics and instead caught up in the joy or atmosphere of the moment.

When Mistake in not MistakeWhen Mistake in not Mistake Kids at Festival-BhutanKids at Festival-Bhutan

Are these sensations "real", or just distortions of reality? We certainly experience them as real, perhaps even more real than those of our daily lives. Similarly, we might ask whether a photograph that employs unconventional artistic techniques, such as blur, should be considered a less accurate depiction of a place or a scene than a more straightforward image? To put it another way, is a sharply-focused "literal" photograph more truthful than an impressionistic one? Common-sense says that it is, because a "straight" documentary photograph appears more faithful to the events as they objectively occurred, without subjective or stylistic interference. 

And yet philosophers and cognitive scientists from as far back as Immanuel Kant in the 18th century,  right up to George Lakoff today, have argued that the idea of a "pure" objective perception of the world - of direct access to the "things in themselves" - is a myth. Some schools of Buddhism have suggested similarly too. According to these thinkers, all perception is subjective and no one can know the world in any way other than by means of their own senses. I can never be one hundred percent certain that what I see is the same as what you see, simply because there's no yardstick against which to compare our experiences. I.e. we cannot access a more "pure" version of reality in order to check for the accuracy of our sensory impressions. In practice, then, there are only impressions.

If that's the case, shouldn't it be argued that the most truthful photograph is not the one that neutrally shows a scene in sharp focus and detail, but instead the one that most closely resembles, or expresses, the photographer's subjective experience of events? Even if that particular photograph breaks all the rules of "good" photography?

Aarief Bhutan Monk with Incense  walking through crowd of worshippersAarief Bhutan Monk with Incense walking through crowd of worshippers




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