Chapter 2. Auto de Fe: Interrogations in the Dark

Photography needs light. There is no doubt about that. Light bounces off objects and enters the aperture of the camera, passes through the lens, and is then recorded in the film. But photography is also in some sense about darkness. Of course we think about the darkroom that photographers work in when they develop their images, although many photographers now use digital cameras and the darkroom has become a thing of the past. Still, there is another kind of darkness that seems to me part of the photographic process: the act of interpretation.

We make sense of things we see all the time. Some kinds of such “sense-making” is straightforward. For example, we see a spot of red and yellow swaying on a green stick before us, and judge that it is a ‘flower’. However, other moments of sense-making can be more complex, and requires that we work through ambiguities. For example, we may see two boys wrestling with each other, but may not immediately be able to interpret what is happening. It is possible to judge that these boys are fighting each other, but it may also be possible to judge that they are playing with each other in a sport. In this latter case, we may require more evidence, more facts, more information to come to an accurate interpretation of what really is happening.

To speak like that suggests that interpretation is always about trying to get at some kind of truth ‘out there’. However, this need not always be the case. While the more common purpose of interpretation is to grasp the truth of things, we can also employ the act of interpretation to grasp other kinds of ideas that may not represent a present reality. For example, seeing the boys wrestling in the garden and the bunch of flowers nearby, one may judge that the boys may soon roll over the flowers, which they have not done. Other ideas might derive from this interpretive act: that we should quickly stop the boys’ play, lest the flowers be ruined. This thought may then in turn suggest that one needs to build a kind of barrier to protect the flowers, seeing that the boys will be playing in the garden in the future again.

Doing photography requires interpretation. For example, photographers interpret what they see. That allows them to judge, for example, that they have a human face before them, and to bring that mess of a blur into ‘focus’, achieving an image of a human face. Other times, they have to make judgements about what is worth photographing and what is not, and this also demands interpretation. For example, some images have more meaning than others, or represent a better account of the truth and therefore are worth recording more than others. Again, like the discussion of interpretation above, one’s interpretative act in photography need not necessarily be to know what the truth ‘out there’ is. Perhaps a photographer may judge a phenomenon to be worth photographing and recording not because of what is really stands for, but perhaps for what it reminds the photographer of. For example, a person may take a picture of a dog, not because he has any particular affection for it, but perhaps because it reminds him of his friend to whom the dog belonged, but who has since has passed on. Here the photographer makes sense of the image, but in a different way than someone would who judges the image to be that particular dog. In this case the image, though an image of a dog, points to some other thing. Hence, as interpreted by our photographer, the image of the dog is a sign of someone else. While for others, it may of course represent the dog in the real, for him, it points to his dead friend. Indeed, because his friend no more exists, in this case the dog becomes a sign of a memory, or an idea.

This suggests that interpretation can be a form of thinking that involves the signing of one thing by another. That is to say, when we interpret something, we may be actually allowing that “something” to lead us to something else, even if it can just as well refer us back to itself. Semioticians who study the way signs behave label this “leading to something else” as semiosis. When something behaves as a sign, it points in semiosis to something other than itself. John Deely’s studies of John Of St Thomas OP (Jean Poinsot) suggest that he was the amongst the earliest few to systematically analyse thinking in terms of a sign-ing event.

The example above involving the dog and the dead friend also suggests that in photography, there can be an image or a picture leading in semiosis to another idea. That is to say, that which is photographed or photographs themselves can become signs of a variety of ideas. The ideas may be true or false, good or bad, real or fictional.

What then decides how they sign? What makes this photograph a sign of this, and not that? What determines the direction of the sign is precisely what the photographer or viewer of the photograph brings to bear on the image, the interpretant. The interpretant, to simplify matters, is the label semioticians have for the ideas and beliefs we have, and which we then use to read the sign. Returning to the example, had our photographer a different set of ideas: memories, beliefs, knowings, then seeing the dog may not remind him of his dead friend. If it were another person who had a different set of beliefs about dogs, then the dog could refer to quite something else. For example someone else who has had a bad experience with a dog might grasp in the sight of the dog some thoughts of danger and fear. With a different set of interpretants, this second person reads the dog differently. For him, the dog signed a very different set of ideas.

Semioticians therefore describe the action of signing as the interplay of three things. Firstly, we have the sign itself, sometimes called the sign-vehicle or representamen. This is that which we first experience, such as an image. Then we have the ideas that the image points to. This we call the signified. Finally, we have the interpretant, which leads from the sign to the signified. This for instance would be a certain set of beliefs that we bring to bear on the image, leading us to think of those ideas.

Photography requires interpretation. Interpretation is itself the process of a sign leading to a signified by way of an interpretant. Interpretations can vary, just as the significations can vary. Significations vary, just as interpretants vary. In what follows I consider what interpretations can emerge through the doing of photography. In semiotic terms this includes exploring the kinds of significations that can emerge when we bring to bear various interpretants on the sign. Further, any signification, when considered by a new interpretant, can become itself a new sign and point to another idea, which in turn can become a new sign for yet another idea, in a kind of associative drift, ad inifinitum. Or, some significations lead us to reflect in turn on the beliefs that constitute the interpretant. This especially occurs when the interpretant that directs the sign to the signified is somewhat less distinct, like an intuition might be. Thus, the signification, by leading back to the interpretant, becomes in turn a sign, with the interpretant becoming the signified. One can further imagine, the interpretant, being itself an idea, in turn pointing in semiosis to yet other more interesting or sophisticated interpretant intuitions, seeking clarification, and so on, ad infnitum. Semioticians describe such further semiosis as infinite semiosis. Some of our interpretive studies of photography would involve such infinite semiosis. I would also add that I am particularly interested in the kinds of interpretations that have ethical relevance, and some of my studies reflect that slant. Semioticians like Augusto Ponzio and Susan Petrilli have made the strong case for the study of signs that have ethical relevance, and they coin the phrase “semio-ethics” for that philosophical direction, which they also suggest trace to the theory of significs by Lady Victoria Welby. Hence those may be suitably classified as a kind of photo-semio-ethical study, i.e., studies of photography and the ethical significations that can emerge.

This said, we should proceed with a warning. Interpretation is not easy. Logicians classify the thinking that guides interpretive semiosis as ‘abduction’. Abduction is typically referred to as the thinking that occurs when one generates a hypothesis. The generation of a hypothesis is of course an interpretation of some given collection of data. To see why abduction is difficult, we can compare abduction with the other forms of thinking: deduction and induction. In deduction one moves with necessity from premises to a conclusion, being sure to avoid introducing new ideas. Induction tests a hypothesis against some truths in order to see if the hypothesis is false, and there is also no attempt to generate new knowledge except whether the hypothesized is still true, true in this case or is now false. Abduction on the other hand moves from one idea to an other new idea, precisely by coming up with this latter new idea. Therefore it does not simply re-present what one already knows, as deduction does; nor does it simply test a given claim inductively. With limited guidance from the current store of data, it seeks to progress towards something more, something deeper, something further, something else…For this reason abduction can be fluidly innovative, but at a price: sometimes one does not know what else to think. Sometimes, one gropes about in the dark night, painful and tormented, pining for a visitation. Other times, one is visited by an idea or intuition that seems, on first sight, too bold or wild for one’s liking or comprehension. In this case, it becomes what we cannot “see”. In this blinding darkness, it will be an act of faith that carries one forward in persistent interrogation to further disclose its sense: fides quarens intellectum. The next chapters record the several different lines of interrogation, some related, others not, but each and every one an auto de fe.


Also revised and shortened as “Auto de fe: Photography, Interpretation and Signs” in, powered by Focal Press.


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