Perspectives and manipulation: 6 photographers and a single subject

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At first glance, this three-minute video (6 Photographers Capture Same Person But Results Vary Widely Because of a Twist) provides a visually engaging, if rather obvious, illustration of differing perspectives at work as 6 photographers take distinctly unlike pictures of the same subject. Taken at face value, it’s an appealing resource for a TOK class on the effect of what we think (perspectives, WOK intuition/reason) on what we see (WOK sense perception) and how we represent the world (WOK language). It’s when we question the methods of the film makers, though, and the reach of their conclusions, that the video becomes richer in questions that we want to raise in Theory of Knowledge.

The Australian video, sponsored by the photographic supply company Canon, ends with the conclusion printed up on the screen:  “A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what is in front of it.”  In many a TOK class, all that would be necessary to start an appropriate discussion would be the simple questions, “Do the film makers support this claim effectively? How might you re-phrase what you think they demonstrate?”

It’s possible, though, that students might accept the overstated and relativist conclusion so completely that they recognize none of the flaws in the method of reaching it. I think it’s fair to say that people tend to be less critical of “evidence” that supports their own views than “evidence” that contradicts it. Trying to be open-minded – resisting our human inclination toward confirmation bias (WOK intuition) – and strikes me as one of the most ambitious goals of the IB learner profile!

To stir response, then, I’d appeal to students’ sense of fairness (and some discussions of AOK ethics) and ask, “Do you think it was right for the film makers to lie to the six photographers about the person they were asked to photograph?”

 To stimulate or supplement student response, you might find interesting the comments on this video from numerous other photographers, posted on the website of Shutterbug: 6 Photographers Capture Same Person But Results Vary Widely Because of a Twist (VIDEO). They voice their views on dishonesty and manipulation, and they provide some counterbalance to the leaning toward photographer subjectivity in the video’s conclusion. Some comments selected from this site:

Some comments from photographers

— This video doesn’t prove that the photographer’s point of view shapes the portrait taken since there was in fact a different character in front of each photographer. Any decent portrait photographer will try to get the personality of their subject to show in the photo. To do this you need to know some things about the subject. They got most of this from the introduction and from the actor’s feedback as they were shooting.

— I can’t agree with the tag line that the photographer shapes more of the image than what’s in front of his lens. A portrait is a collaboration, not a one way street and I dislike that this is the message being shared.

— To see each photographer’s interpretation – each needed to photograph the same subject with the same information.

— Are we talking about a portrait as a service for the person photographed? Which of course must take into account the expectations of the client. We hear one of the photographers ask “What do you want the photo to say about you?” Now that is by definition a service oriented question.

— So they asked an actor to play 6 different roles. Obviously he did well – but it proves nothing regarding the photographers… These were photographers…and their job is to learn about their subject and show who he is, not just his appearance. I’d say the actor played his roles well, and the photographers did well helping him to flesh out those roles. If I was one of the photographers, I’d feel a little used – like somebody played “gotcha!” with me.

— There’s no “Control” on this experiment. Also, a photographer brings their own style in the first place. PLUS, if you tell a photographer something, it’s SUPPOSED to influence the shoot. I HATE when “experiments” like this try to convey something that’s assumed by the experimenter. That is, “Experiments” with an agenda.

— These photographers were set up and made to look foolish, manipulative, and incompetent. They were told to make a “revealing” portrait. And then they were misinformed by the agent, and the subject, who pretended to be something he wasn’t. It makes what we do seem superficial and manipulative… I have, for many years, described portraits as collaborations. It’s incumbent on a portraitist to know their subject to some degree, or when time is short, to accept their external signifiers as the clues they usually are… (the clothes we choose to wear, the style of hair, jewelry, posture, speech patterns). But when someone deliberately obscures who they are, and strips all genuine manifestations of themselves away, presenting nothing but trickery and deception, all we can do is create a fiction. If you want a genuine representation of who you are, you must be willing to reveal some of that to a portraitist… or be satisfied with an irrelevant, and in this case, dishonest representation of no one.

It seems to me that by trying so hard to make their point, the film makers actually weakened it. If they were sincerely convinced that different photographers would create different images of the same thing, why did they need to introduce the fictional biographies? And did they not thereby change the subject itself, so that the six were no longer taking pictures of “the same person”? Moreover, weren’t the six being given certain expectations for what kind of photograph they were being commissioned to do? I’ve been trying to pin down the nature of the promotion that Canon is doing in a video that is indirectly an advertisement – and I’m thinking about messages regarding buying creativity or power.

I’d end, then, with posing questions about subjectivity and objectivity, and comparing expectations we have about the creative arts and the human sciences in how they treat human beings.

Questions about photography: Is there anything very wrong – or is there anything very right — with photographers taking extremely different images of the same thing?

Questions about the film makers’ methods: Would this trial involving 6 photographers qualify as an experiment within the human sciences, with a hypothesis, control of variables, careful and repeated observation, and conclusions proportionate to the data?

Conclusion

As you can probably tell from my comments and questions on this video, I find it both catchy and annoying. It’s engaging in its visuals and storytelling, and it does make strongly a point relevant to TOK. But at the same time, it’s sloppy in its thinking and flawed in its methods. But this is exactly the sort of material I seek out for class. Flawless materials leave nothing for students to add, whereas flawed but interesting ones can provoke engaged critique.

Finally, I confess that the video’s conclusion really bothers me personally – almost frightens me, if it’s left unchallenged. When I yield to my inclination to see metaphorically, I find too many disturbing echoes around me in the media. Do we accept being lied to? Do we think that the lies we carry in our heads are more significant than what is actually the case in the world we witness? And then what kinds of representations do we accept or create of refugees, minority groups, women, Muslims, Christians, environmentalists, patriots? Doesn’t it matter?

Resources

Cynthia Boylan • 6 Photographers Capture Same Person But Results Vary Widely Because of a Twist (VIDEO). Shutterbug, Nov 4, 2015 http://www.shutterbug.com/content/lab-pushes-boundaries-photography-decoy#tPSW80JI0zGSwLDg.99

The Lab: Decoy. A portrait session with a twist. Canon, Australia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-TyPfYMDK8

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