What Could Have Been

We are quite familiar with the fact that certain details or moods in a photograph can touch us. They seem to connect us with an actual situation in the past. In contrast, painting cannot have the same effect on us because it is cued to the painter‘s intentions which are clearly inscribed in every brushstroke as pure fiction. Works of photography rarely refer to their maker. They are too involved with referencing in the image what actually took place. And it is exactly because photography seems to give us a sense of how an event really was unfolding that we can be moved by it.

But what if we had been there when the shutter was released? Would we be hit by the same feelings? Would Roland Barthes have been so touched by the sister‘s sandals1 in the photograph of an American family if he had been standing next to the photographer? Or did this moving detail first come to light in the photographic image?

To be sure, in the continuum of life, we do not see the world like the camera when it freezes a fraction of a second. Odd details may be highlighted in a photograph, but we would likely miss them as an eye-witness. Yet, much more than a mechanism isolating a frozen instant, what we find here are the almost unlimited possibilities for the photographer to represent a subject. The photographer decides how reality will be transcribed in the photograph when he/she pulls the shutter release. When we look at a photograph we do not take this into account. We ignore the fact that every moment can be captured and represented in so many different ways, that any photograph is only one instance of a what-has-been (“that-has-been”2). The angle, framing, depth of field, aperture, and many other camera settings define the image, its legibility and mood. A particular head posture for instance, or a lighting effect, or a movement, may look strange from a particular angle but quite unremarkable from another.

In this perspective photography is detached from its aura of representing what-has-been. This is how it turns into a what-could-have-been, which opens up a field of endless possibilities. Possibilities that may or may not be imagined. In this equation the photographic images that we encounter everyday begin to lose their impact.
Far from resorting to cynicism we are merely considering the phenomenology of reality and as a result we realize that a specific detail or state of mind in a photograph can affect us because it is leading us–by a thread which is barely connected to reality–towards a mere photographic trace of a past moment rather than towards the past moment itself. Yet we are constantly inclined to overlook this fact in order to see in the photograph what we wish to see in it.

Barbara Probst, June 2014
Translation F.P. Boué

1 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang, 1982, p.43
2 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang, 1982, p.76


Punctum, Reflexions on Photography, published by Fotohof Edition and Salzburger Kunstverein, pp.162/163
2014