My memory often fails me no matter how important the events might be, but when I look over my contact sheets I can almost always recall the situation when I made the exposure, even if it has happened many years ago.
One time I developed a few rolls of film that I’d shot several months earlier. Scanning over the contact sheets I easily recalled when, how, even why, I took each photograph. But there was one image, shown above, of which I remembered nothing. No exposure before or after this one gave me any context or clue to help me recall the moment or the scene, as if a ghost photographer accompanied me on that day and borrowed my camera to make only one image.
A few years ago Matt Lutton of Dva Foto, reflecting on the NYT Lens article about my work on The Lazarus Project and some things I had said there, posed a question: “Is it possible for a photographer to photograph as someone else? In other words, to photograph in character?” Several years have passed since and I still occasionally think about the question.
In literature, some characters are represented solely through the words of other characters. Aleksandar Hemon, in one of the interviews discussing two of the characters in The Lazarus Project, a married couple Brik and Mary, says: “All we know about Mary is what Brik tells us, so the reports on Mary are biased.” So Brik’s story about Mary becomes Mary. Writers can do this, the narrator can shift from being an outsider to becoming an insider, and the character can take over and tell his/her own story. I’m interested in how this could work in photography. One person in the picture can’t tell anything about the other. Those portrayed, subjected to the image, do not have any voice unless the photographer steps out of the medium. A great example would be Jim Goldberg‘s fascinating series Rich and Poor.
One of the most memorable examples is the photograph that shows Edgar and Regina, whose marriage, like that one of Brik and Mary, is an interesting one. They, as everyone else in Goldberg’s series, were given opportunity to express their own feelings in their own handwriting on the face of the photograph that depicts them. Goldberg’s story is no longer only his.
Both Matt Lutton’s inquiry and Jim Goldberg’s example lead to the question: Could anyone but the photographer tell a story constructed purely with images, that is without the photographer’s reaching out to other means of storytelling? Maybe we could even go further and question if the photographer can be the narrator at all. In his 1980 essay Uses of Photography, John Berger said: “Only that which narrates can make us understand. Photographs in themselves do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearances.” Photography is a medium, more so than any other, in which the story and its meaning do not actually originate with the creator but, on the contrary, with the recipient. Every photograph tells as many stories as there are viewers. In some ways, every photograph is taken by a ghost photographer whose intentions are as irrelevant as they are mysterious.
At one point in The Lazarus Project Brik explains the concept of marriage to Rora, his photographer friend: “Nothing ever goes away, everything stays inside it. It is a different reality.” Just like in a photograph.