Posted by: flannerylangton | November 7, 2020

Pictures (sometimes) need a thousand words

In journalistic settings, it is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words and that a good photograph can stand on its own and tell a story, however, that isn’t always true. Captions lead the viewer to a conclusion and can add a level of truth to a photograph that otherwise might be overlooked. 

When the first photo was taken in 1826, the first image deemed as presenting the exact “real” was created. Because cameras technically capture reality, they became synonymous with journalism, truth, and seeing. Pictures are supposed to be worth a thousand words but sometimes without context, they don’t make the sense they should. 

Photo Courtesy of getty.edu; “interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels” by Felice Beato

The photo “interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels” by Felice Beato is an example of a photo needing context to be understood more fully. This photo depicts the ruins of an ancient building in British colonial  India as the backdrop to a small group of local people and a white horse who sit, kneel, and stand amongst the bones of presumably their brethren who have been slaughtered by the British 93rd Highlanders and the 4th Punjab regiment. The event took place in late 1857 but the photo was taken in mid 1858. 

The initial view of the photo is horrifying, but in a more subtle way. Without close observation it is easy to pass over the bones as simply debris on the ground. The background too impacts the photo, which when combined with the bones, makes everything in the image feel ancient and unrelated to “current day,” if that was the 1850s. 

In the chapter “Anaesthesis and Violence: A Colonial History of Shock” in his book Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India, scholar Zahid Chaudhary discusses the lack of context and staging of this photo by Beato. About the caption, Chaudhary initially says it “describes what it shows” (73). However, the story of this photo changes as the history of it is recounted by Chaudhary. The photographer arrived in Ludkow too late and “the official ‘history of the mutiny’ had already entered its memorializing stage … Beato ordered full exhumation of the half-buried corpses and posed them in the courtyard of Sikanderbagh” (77). This horrifying story adds the the ruthlessness of British colonization as it even continued in the documenting of it. It also questions if there is any truth at all within this image as it attempts to represent an event that happened months previously. It means this photo is all about aesthetics and not the people involved in the atrocity. Chaudhary begins to question the ethics of that and in response it loses all trace of ethics. Like all colonial acts it is a massive abuse of power as this photograph attempts to write an incorrect history and tell an incorrect story, even if it does attempt to show some aspect of the atrocity. 

Additionally, Chaudhary writes that this photo was originally mis-captioned then printed in London as having been taken on the actual day of the massacre, further complicating the story and the viewer’s interpretation of the image. That seemingly small error forever changed the trajectory of the image as the first viewers would have seen it as fact of the day and a perfect encapsulation of life in India and the actions of the colonial military. In reality, it is dramatized in a way that only removes the importance of the image from the viewer’s immediate thought process. 

In a different vein of misinterpretation (with far less severity), the following photo is frequently shown when discussing the early mechanics of photography. 

Photo courtesy of The Atlantic; A photo of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris’ 3rd arrondissement. Towards the bottom left are two people, thought to be the first ever photographed.  

This photo is actually a daguerreotype. In 1834, French artist and designer Louis Jaques Mande Daguerre completed the development of the daguerreotype, essentially a type of camera. According to The Atlantic article “The Gift of the Daguerreotype” by Alan Taylor, “The daguerreotype process used a polished sheet of silver-plated copper, treated with iodine to make it light-sensitive, which was exposed (for several minutes or more) under a lens, then “fixed” using mercury vapor.”

This photo of Paris is recognizable through its architecture and street construction. It is immediately peaceful, quiet, and serene–strange for a major city. 

Alan explains that these early pictures had incredibly long exposure times and for this one in particular it was nearly 10 minutes. This meant that anything moving left no trace in the camera lens. It is thought that of the two people visible, one is shining a shoe and the other is getting his shoe shined, meaning they would have stayed in the same place for the needed amount of time. 

This image still is a great example of a very regular thing becoming spooky and haunting as it is strange to see such a bustling and recognizable city almost completely empty. But with the story of the daguerreotype all of that falls away and it becomes interesting and more a feat of technology. 

This wonder does happen in “interior of the Sikanderbagh after the Slaughter of 2,000 Rebels” because of the violence it represents and the horror that laid even in the construction of the photo. There are some places where experimental art is allowed and is ethical, Paris streets are an example of that but in colonizers contexts that shouldn’t be allowed as it only further manipulates the stories. 

So possibly seeing is not believing, not if sight is given without context. It is a misnomer that a photograph alone can showcase truth and reality because even in real life truth and reality do not exist without context.  

Works Cited

Chaudhary, Zahid. “Anaesthesis and Violence: A Colonial History of Shock.” Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India, University of Minnesota Press, 2012, 73-104.

Taylor, Alan. “The Gift of the Daguerreotype.” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2015/08/the-gift-of-the-daguerreotype/401816/ . Accessed 6 Nov. 2020.


Responses

  1. Great post, Flannery! This reminds me of how there is an emerging conflict on the internet surrounding the spread of misinformation. I think public manipulation through media paired with misguided context is often thought to be a solely modern process. However, these images show that misinformation through photography has always been an issue (whether done intentionally or unintentionally).

  2. Hi Flannery! Your immediate point about how photography and journalism are often considered equally objective despite both easily obfuscating reality was super on-the-nose for me. The way that you back this up by presenting images initially without context, then supplying us with the full information about the photograph works really well to communicate this point. I also agree with where you have drawn the line between regular observation and colonial voyeurism and I think you come to that point well by sticking with just two photographs. Thank you for sharing! 🙂


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