Chapter 36. Flash! The Decisive Moment

Earlier in chapter 3. Signs of Good and Evil,  I spoke about casual photography.I want to develop those ideas.

Choices, I had said, about what to put into the frames of the camera viewfinder, or into the film, what one decides to shoot and record, are all evaluative and ‘display’ what are important, good, and choiceworthy.  But not just what one already thinks important, as it were.  The very choosing, that exercise of panning about before available phenomena whilst knowing that all of that cannot be taken up and some discriminating selection is needed also alerts you to what should for you matter, if you have not thought so up to that point.  That is what I mean, and that’s the important point here.

The evaluating of what matters show and display, phenomenologically, certain values, and so steer your photographic choices, in favor of frames of pictures that in the interpetation or reading of the photographer, relate to those values, for example: a wrinkled face from a good long life, or a new born child with potential to live it out well; loving embraces of marital friendships; the beauty that surrounds us in nature, architectural monuments of learning; and monuments to courageous justice; common persons with virtuous skillful play; religious expressions, even if not shared, as well as those that relate to this in a roundabout way, negatively, such as heart-breaking poverty, in various manifestations, where there are privations of these goods.  

Or in cases where what is pictured is not immediately an instantiation of any of these basic common goods, it is typically true that that which is photographed is read as related to such a good, whether instrumentally or otherwise, and it is the basic common good that by relation gives the picture its axiological significance, so that a choice was made to extract that visual frame with the camera against a backdrop of other infinite possibilities to be framed within a photograph.

Thus your choices in photography are steered by and during the photographic exercise, by the common basic goods that recurrently display, almost like a kind of ethical reflection-in-action, where the reflective act is stimulated precisely by and during the activity, to loosely adapt Donald Schön (1983), as much as you might have steered them based on a set of ethical pre-judgments (for which the ethical thinking is imposed on the activity and hence there is by comparison an ethical reflection-on-action, where reflection is done outside of the activity but then later brought into the activity, as it were).

“Now, hold on!”, you say. Isn’t there something terribly suspect right here that precisely suggests that I am vacillating on my remark regarding the way there is, so to speak, reflection-in-action rather than a mere reflection-on-action?  Isn’t there more than a hint of viciously circular intellectual dishonesty at worst, or interpretive muddle-headedness at best, you protest, that I should characterize my examples with the very values defended by new natural law theory: life, friendship, knowledge, beauty…etc?  Isn’t this itself instead confirmation that I am importing a learnt ethical framework, and so I am  drawing on pre-judgments to reflect on and steer my photographic choices?  Have I not, contrary to my assertions, precisely imported these interpretive ethical lenses rather than allow photography to display these, and for these to give of themselves, to show?

Now that would be a blatant and stupid mistake and contradiction that had completely escaped me, would it not?  But there it is, as I have recounted it, which is my point exactly: it is intriguing and worthy of attention, that these kinds of choices are the common stock, with these said choices steered by these kinds of basic common goods, irrespective of the (coincidental) fact that these are the very same goods identified under new natural law theory as basic common goods.  One might seek to ignore these common basic goods identified under new natural law, yet it is these goods that are recurrently displayed or given as the ethical insights in the act of casual photography.  And you, the reader, I dare conjecture, can and will corroborate this.

Any autobiographical confession is limited by its un-generalizability – but I invite the reader to join my participant research project in his own capacity, by doing some casual photography, and to compare his own autobiographical field notes of the givenness of the phenomena in such photographic experiences with the analysis above for ‘triangulating’ (c.f. Guion et al, 2013) resonance.  These are the basic common goods that help us make intelligible sense of the phenomenon, and help us identify, intelligently, what is of importance, of significance, worthy of our attending to…as we think about and ask ourselves how we should react to, do to, engage with, that vast field of phenomena before us (which casual photography, because evaluative, inclines us to ask).

This does not mean necessarily that these displayed ethical judgments are new or altogether alien.  However, what is clearly experienced is that the evaluative act in casual photography is one that constantly inquires after what is truly deserving, what is truly important, what truly matters…and this act foregrounds these ethical judgments, or at least these are sufficiently foregrounded that these are the driving background of what one chooses to picture or frame with the camera.  Such “showing” of these basic common goods is recurring in, during and because of the (fully evaluative) casual photography, and not because one draws from a repository of values from memory.

Indeed, and perhaps this is key: the serendipitous nature of leisurely photography militates against any kind of ratiocinating importing of a pre-agreed ethical theory to shape one’s picture taking;  things  suddenly appear within one’s field of vision or at the edges of one’s viewfinder framelines by chance, and within a split second a judgment has to be made whether something is significant or not, lest the decisive moment is passed, and then “click!” goes the shutter.  There’s no sophisticated moral inference concluding “yes, according to such a such a theory, this matters” at work because no moral inference can work quickly enough here, and in any case it is never experienced like that.  The street photographer with the rangefinder camera  is not a lumbering philosophy professor ; the experience capturing a good picture during the fleeting decisive moment is more akin to being enlightened by a flash of insight : “there! – this is good.” – and  “click!”.