Whether as a hobby, a profession, or a form of personal expression, photography offers a unique and powerful way of engaging with the world around us
Photo Credit: Dan Yeo
At its core, photography is an art form that captures the beauty, emotion, and essence of the world around us.
However, photography is not just a technical skill or a way of documenting reality; it is a deeply philosophical pursuit that raises fundamental questions about perception and subjectivity.
In this article, we will explore some interesting aspects of photography, looking at the ideas of well-known philosophers and photographers, and examining the ways in which photography challenges our understanding of the world!
Photography as a Cultural and Emotional Response
Roland Barthes photographed by Sophie Bassouls. Copyright: © Corbis.
Let’s take a deeper dive into this topic by looking at what French philosopher Roland Barthes has said. He argued that photography is not simply a representation of reality, but a cultural construct shaped by various factors.
In his book “Camera Lucida”, Barthes argues that a photograph has two elements. First, the cultural, historical, and social context of the image. Secondly, the personal, emotional, and subjective response to the image.
To that, Delun, our White Room Studio photographer, says:
Photography is indeed shaped by historical, cultural, social, and even technological
events. Take the Pictorialist Movement for example which was in response to cameras
being made accessible to the masses. Professional photographers had to distinguish
themselves from ’snapshots’ made by amateurs by making fine art photographs, which
emphasised composition and beauty.”
Pictured: Fine-art landscape images of Antarctica taken by White Room Studio’s co-founder, Elaine Lim. As one of Antarctic Climate Epic Expedition 2023 (ACE)’s ambassadors, Elaine is committed to promoting environmental conservation and awareness through her artistic and personal endeavors.
Delun reflects on his journey as a photographer:
Personally, my photography style was accidental due to the limited equipment. A DSLR,
a prime lens, and without any speedlights. With that, I chanced upon very cinematic
images and that was a style I stuck with even after acquiring more equipment. Films were
my first love so you can also say that my style converged at the point where my love for
film and technological limitations met.”
Pictured: Photographs taken by Delun – life as seen from his eyes, with the people he cares most about
When we take a photo, we are not simply taking a picture of what is there; we are also interpreting and creating an image based on our personal experiences.
For Delun, he was heavily influenced by his passion for films. On the other hand, Elaine’s recent trip to Antarctica led her to capture some stunning images of the South Pole – motivated by a love for the ocean and scuba diving.
Photographer Jia Meng continues,
A photograph communicates something beyond the obvious and the factual, revealing something unexpected. As a photographer, I would like to engage the viewer intellectually and emotionally, challenge their assumptions and expectations, and produce something that reflects my own perspective and feelings.”
And Barthes would agree as well! His theory tells us photographers like Delun (and many others in history) have gone through this same process of merging the cultural and emotional response in a photograph, as they develop their craft over the years.
Photography as a Form of Creation
Unknown photographer, Minor White, 1951, the Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum, bequest of Minor White (MWA X816)
It can be said that photography is not just a form of interpretation, but a form of creation as well. American photographer and critic Minor White once argued, “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.”
This quote speaks to the idea that photography is not solely about capturing what is visible, but what is invisible, such as emotions, ideas, and concepts.
Photographer Yan agrees:
Our memories form such an intrinsic part of our self. This is why when we look at the past, at old photos, we get hit with nostalgia. It could reveal the emotions you carry like holding your newborn as a parent, the excitement and joy. A photo tells so many things and reads off differently for every person. Photography is so powerful because that is proof of our physical and intangible existence at that point in time.”
Captured at White Room Studio: Yan’s spontaneous portrait of parents kissing their child (left) and Dan’s emotive portrait of a couple embracing their pregnancy (right)
Pictured: Randy’s portrait of a sleeping newborn baby during a newborn photoshoot at White Room Studio
Photographer Randy has a similar perspective to offer:
Although the camera usually limits the photographer to capturing existing objects, I believe a skilled person can still be creative within the mechanical reproduction process. For example, you can frame an image in a unique way, such as capturing a reflection of a subject or using shadows to create an interesting composition. This can convey a certain concept, like the feeling of loneliness.”
Pictured: An black-and-white image that won a Merit Award from Black and White Magazine, USA (left) and a high contrast black-and-white image of the interior of the Louvre (right). How do these photos make you feel?
Credit: Elaine Lim
Photography as a Form of Power
Portrait of American author and critic Susan Sontag. Credit: Getty Images
In her book, “On Photography”, renowned feminist writer and philosopher Susan Sontag contends that photography is also a form of power. She claims that photography has the power to shape our understanding of the world by influencing our beliefs and values.
Photographer Justin adds on,
The simple act of featuring a luxury watch on a well-dressed model in a commercial can create the perception that the product holds significant value and status. If the same product and model were placed in a run-down environment or captured with poor photography skills, it could lead people to undermine the perceived value of the product.”
A set of photographs depicting life during the Vietnam War at the “Living Pictures- Photography in Southeast Asia” exhibition at National Gallery, Singapore.
It is clear that photography has the power to document reality (as photojournalists do), or shape it in a way that alters people’s grasp of reality.
Take for example, photography’s relationship with imperialism.
European photographers who traveled to Southeast Asia in the 19th century created many photographs for a distinctively European audience. Such images satiated curiosity across all social classes, of those who wanted to know what life was like in the distant colonies.
In a way, these photographers wielded the power to construct a visual narrative of SEA. Their images created an early – if not the first – impression of the region. These historical snapshots often presented the native people through a lens of exoticism, as a means to justify and project their colonial power.
So, What is Photography?
We’ve explored the different forms of photography today; as a cultural and emotional response; as a form of creation, and a form of power.
Regardless of what you think it is, photography is a deeply meaningful pursuit because it challenges our worldview.
It raises questions about the nature of reality and how it is represented through images. Is reality objective, or is it subjective?
These are some of the fundamental questions that photography raises, and it is this aspect that makes it such a fascinating art form!