Chapter 13. Guilty Pleasures: Caught in the Act

Sometimes in photography we capture things in movement. Some cameras do a terrific job at that: the subject in motion is caught in the act, and an event is stopped right in its tracks. Big DSLR cameras with the most current technologies do this particularly well – the thing in motion is suspended in time. The whole motion is resolved, broken up, into a series of stills. Doing this – capturing motion like this – sometimes affords great pleasure. A part of the event is abstracted from its beginning and its end, and stopped in time. We can now see and examine things that we could not previously with our naked eye have seen when it was all happening so fast. This pleasure is natural, since, as Aristotle pointed out: all men by nature desire to know, and knowledge is had, first and foremost, through sight.

Imagining the way to grasp truth to be something like the camera which resolves motion into many frames of stills, David Hume the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher would say that any complete event in motion is really nothing other than a series of these stills, each examinable independently of the others. When thus examined, they suggest that there is really nothing that ties every of these stills together. One frame of the still happens before or after another, no doubt. But there is nevertheless a “gap” one between the other. When he saw frames of things interacting – say a series of frames of two billiard balls hitting – he was keen to insist that what we would ordinarily describe as ‘causal connections’ did not, in fact, exist.

But there is something wrong, something philosophically unjust in Hume’s way of looking at things. As photographers we are quite conscious of the fact that the real world which we photograph is not the same as the world as it is represented by our tools. The reality out there, if you like, is prior, and the images we manufacture are posterior. This reality is prior not only in the sense that it is there first, but also because it will always contain more than we can put into our images. Reality, to borrow Jean Luc Marion, is always saturating phenomena, overflowing what our photographic receptacles can contain. For example, we can only capture as many frames as our camera would be able to, yet we know well that there are some frames of the event that are inevitably left out. Just years back, the camera could not capture color, and only shades of black and white. In other words, the camera represents reality precisely by mis-representing it in some other way.

Hume on the other hand would say that reality was nothing other than what would have appeared to us in these series of photographic stills. The philosophical injustice is hence his re-ordering of reality and the (mis)representing stills. For Hume, these mis-representations of reality are precisely the best accounts of reality that we have, and so reality is to be grasped by way of these mis-representations. Hume would have been right if all we had to go by were these stills. Yet our experience of the world as a continuous stream, un-representable by the stills of the camera, encourage us to be skeptical of what Hume would have us understand the world to be: nothing other than a series of disjointed stills. Quite the contrary, seeing something move after something else in movement comes into contact with it, suggests to our intelligence that one is responsible for the other.

If we went along with Hume, no one could ever be convicted under law for bumping another person down onto the train tracks and causing his death: all one could say was, in a moment the person was next to the suspect, and the next moment he was under the train. It would be contrary to common sense. It would also make nonsense of the concept of blameworthiness, and of the merit of forgiveness. So, if we took pleasure not only in the achievement of these mis-representing stills, but also in the dis-ordering of the relationship between reality and its (mis)representation as Hume did, then such pleasures are guilty of deeply philosophical disorders, and worse yet, of other moral confusions as well.

Ironically then, as photographers, quite implicitly, still images of motion caught in the act remind us, in a somewhat negative way, of a reality that is much more and much richer than their misrepresentations in still-life. As long as, of course, we do not succumb to Hume-an guilty pleasures.