The Underappreciated Environmental Photography
Location: Burma 1917 – 1924
Author: Phileo, George West, compiler, photographer
In the presence of the vast digital collection of Southeast Asia, the selection of a single image presents the immense difficulty of finding the “best” photograph of them all. While some individual photos may present more information to the viewer than others, every photo taken will provide a reflection of the photographer and their identity as well as open a wide space for the many interpretations of the image to fill. Unlike the long series of informative images in the catalogs, the one provided contains a unique contrast due to its still nature compared to the many that contain images of people, ultimately leaving it up to having unique symbolism and interpretation. Although the popular media of photography and even past photographs present images that provide implicit action that carry meanings in their own way, it is under the closer lens of still images devoid of people that viewers can find more meaning in a photograph.
The vast majority of Southeastern photographs (and all photographs for that matter) can reasonably be placed into one of two categories: Photos that portray people or living creatures, and photos that do not. While this generalization may simplify the vast complexity of photography, it allows for subtle differences between the two types to become clear. Photos with people or creatures compose a relationship between those interacting with the final photograph. We usually think of pictures of a person as a collaboration between the photographer and the individual in the photo, often failing to consider the viewer and how they may interpret the photograph. This three-sided triangular relationship ultimately provides more opportunity for audience interpretation of the photo as there is more at hand to analyze; however, it is important to make the distinction that this interpretation is of the relationship between these three people and not contents of the image itself. Siegal describes the relationship between the photographer and those being photographed well in their statement that “When a sitter commissions a fancy studio portrait, the collaboration is a privilege; when a person has their picture taken unawares or against their wishes, it’s a burden”(Siegal). In the context of a great deal of Southeastern photography, many photos often follow the latter of the two, showing a person unaware of the fact that they are being photographed, resulting in the said “burden” to be placed on them. To stray away from this form of photography, however, allows for the relationship aspect to be ignored, opening more interpretation to be placed on the image at hand without affecting unsuspecting human beings in a negative way.
The displayed image illustrates the environment of Burma in an almost standstill and tranquil way. The introduction of water and its lack of visible disturbance frames the image in the manner that implies no movement to be present in the picture. Many photos of the environment often produce implicit feelings towards the audience, whether it be the wind they would feel or the sounds they would hear if they were there. The obvious inability to obtain these feelings firsthand, or even know that these feelings were present ultimately gives photographs their wide opportunity for interpretation. It is with pictures of the environment, devoid of creatures or people, that there is only one relationship left to interrogate – the relationship between the photographer and viewer of the photo. This one-on-one interaction leaves more room open for interpretation of what the artist’s intent and tone were towards the photo as there is no longer a three-way interaction distracting the audience from what is at hand. Michael Foucault describes a particular interpretation towards photos with multiple meanings present. Within his works he argues that these types of images leave audiences moving from one interpretation to another eventually leaving them with multiple conclusions towards the meaning of the image (Foucault 1983). It is in the presence of people in an image that multiple meanings arise as multiple relationships are up for scrutiny along with interpretations of the photo itself. The overwhelming presence of these added things works to muddle the one implicit meaning that the photographer intended when taking the photo. Foucault’s impression of this idea suggests that images with no people within them contain more meaning because there is less room for “multiple meanings” to be present, resulting in a more concrete and closer look into the purpose for the artist taking the photograph.
The image displayed while being devoid of people allows for the audience to make more meaningful connections without the interruption of the consideration of relationship in the image. While the lack of people may have blinded viewers towards the culture of those in the Burma region, the evident influence of the environment still presents the audience with connections to how the people in Southeast Asia may have lived and interacted with the world around them. The presence of the water and small bridge in the middle illustrates a concrete example of rice farming within the region and what this farm may have looked like. As discussed in the context of class, archives and museums hold the duty to “exhibit different kinds of objects from different countries in new contexts and thus to contribute to our understanding of other cultures.” (Pantazatos, 6). This duty of preservation illustrates how the image can preserve the identity and influence of culture in Burma. Along with this comes the preservation of the meaning that the photographer presented within their photograph.
The distinctive separation of all photographs into two groups ultimately oversimplifies their complex nature and meaningful presence and representation of the past. With that said, in the presence of fewer relationships stemming from a photograph, photos without people contain more meaning within their contents for the viewer to appreciate and understand.
Foucault, Michel. 1983. This is not a pipe. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Siegal, Elizabeth. December 6, 2022. Photographer, Subject, Viewer: A Triangulated Relationship | The Art Institute of Chicago (artic.edu)
Pantazatos, Andreas. “The Ethics of Trusteeship and the Biography of Objects”
Image Source: Taken from camera in person from Rare and Distinctive Collections Reading Room