Sociology and Photography

By | August 2, 2017

I have long had an interest in photography and in its potential as a tool of sociological research. I have in mind in particular ‘deploying’ photos on cafe and bar society. Having found my copy of Bourdieu’s Photography: A Middle-brow Art amidst piles of tomes in my home study, my enthusiasm has again come to the fore. As academics tend to, I have acquired a collection of relevant books and articles. But I have taken a decision here, rightly or wrongly, to chance my arm with a novitiate’s off-the-cuff blog prior to properly informing myself. So what follows is written in relative innocence. I know little of the current spate writings on visual methodologies. Ok, I read Bourdieu on Algeria, but that was a while ago.

Clearly photography has a detailed and varied history and has become a popular and multi-faceted pursuit. Set-piece professional portraints and recordings of lifecourse events like births and weddings have been succeeded by digital photography and selfies via mobile phones. Everyone, it seems, is now a photographer.

So what roles for the sociologist qua photographer? Hermeneutics is relevant here of course: how are we to interpret a given photo? Can its meaning be pinned down? Calling on traditional discussions of hermeneutics, three obvious routes to grasping meaning emerge. A photo’s meaning might: (a) be that intended by the photographer; (b) be that reflecting the culture, mores and norms at the time it was taken; or (c) be that reflecting the culture, mores and norms at the time it is observed or studied. So, it follows, a single photo might yield a number of different, even contradictory, yet nevertheless valid and comprehensible meanings.

Yet there are numerous tracks and footpaths, now merging with, now departing from, this recognised triad of routes. Among the complications this introduces are the following:

  • a photo can be a record, a visual description, of a scene, happening or event, taken simply to register a personal experience (eg a holiday snap);
  • a photo can serve as an illustration of a scene, happening or event of significance beyond the personal (eg a political protest);
  • a photo can represent or stand for – that is, symbolise – a moral or political stance, philosophy or ideology;
  • a photo can be an aesthetic accomplishment;
  • a photo can serve fortuitously as a catalyst for change by capturing the public imagination;
  • a photo can be a performative act or intervention, taken, or transmuted into, a form of engagement in its own right (eg as documentary or legal evidence).

This sample of ‘functions’ some calculated, some contingent, are not of course mutually exclusive, as when a chance holiday snap comes to symbolise oppositional protest to an entrenched authoritarian regime.

But an important point needs to be made at this point. Bourdieu, then Francastel, offer better precis that I could:

‘photography is considered to be a perfectly realistic and objective recording of the visible world because (from its origin) it has been assigned ‘social uses’ that are held to be ‘realistic’ and ‘objective’. And if it has immediately presented itself with all the appearances of a ‘symbolic communication without syntax’, in short a ‘natural language’, this is especially so because the selection which it makes from the visible world is logically perfectly in keeping with the representation of the world which has dominated Europe since the Quattrocento.’

And Francastel:

‘photography – the means of mechanically recording an image in conditions more or less analogous to those of vision – has made visible not the real character of traditional vision but, on the contrary, its systematic character: photographs are taken, even today, as a function of the classical artistic vision, at least insofar as this is permitted by the conditions of lens-manufacture and the use of only one lens. The camera provides the vision of the Cyclops, not of man (my emphasis). We also know that we systematically eliminate all those recordings which do not coincide with a vision that is not real but rather more-or-less artistic. For example, we do not take a picture of a building from close up, because the recording will not correspond to the traditional laws of orthometry. Try focusing a wide angle lens on the centrte of the transept crossing of a gothic cathedral and look at the extraordinary document which you will obtain. You will see that what is called ‘normal vision’ is simply a selective vision, and that the world is infinitely richer in appearances that one would have thought.’

What Bourdiue and Francastel do here is qualify, challenge or confront what for many would be the taken-for-granted or common-sense premises of my earlier list of functions. What they rendering problematic is photography that is structured according to the categories that organize our ordinary vision of the world, that is, that delivers an image that cen be seen as the precise and objective reproduction of reality. The non-reflexive photographer – maybe 99+% – reproduces a status quo which is likely in part ideological, by selection, traditionalism/conventionalism, or both.

Artists, most pertinently painters, were pioneers in this respect. So too in relation to photographic discourse were Bourdieu, writing in 1965, and more notably Francastel, writing in 1951. More contemporary photographers (especially professionsal ones), having made their way – if often circuitously – through the late 20th century postmodernisation of culture, are alert to post-representational theory and practice.

Where does this snapshot of photography’s functions and open-ended opportunity to subvert leave us?

The proof of this particular pudding might well rest with my iPhone and interest in ‘cafe society’ and ‘bar society’! The plan is to experiment, if as an enthusiastic amateur on a learning curve, with alternate and unorthodox photographic insights into the café and the bar as ever-shifting social spaces. Watch this space, as they say.



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