Beyond the digital trash bin

by on Friday, 29 June 2012 Comments

There are as many ways to take a photograph as to look at the world. Some pictures show an empathy with the subject, some others create a sense of distance or even repulsion. Some are bathed with light and tenderness, and some with anger or despair. Some concentrate on everyday life, with a sense of patience, a kind of meditative undertone, while others try to capture the spark of the moment, the transformative event that changes the mood of a crowd or the look on a face. Some impact a meaning on the world and on human life, and others speak of meaningless wanderings Some pictures seem to be the product of a leisurely walk, and some of a feverish quest into both the city’s and one’s own soul…

I am teaching a course of religious anthropology, and have found that initiating students to “visual anthropology” was one of the best possible ways to make them enter the subject matter. I show them documentaries and photographs, and they slowly become conscious of the fact that the best and most informative documents are not the ones that try to objectively record data but rather those that testify to the engagement of the director of photographer with the people he meets with. A sense of risk, of bewilderment, the account of how one’s own perspective has changed, the courage to position oneself within the environment one explores are the qualities we look for: at its best, visual anthropology gives us an unparalleled account of the way people live and express their beliefs, engage into rituals, how they understand and shape the world they dwell in.

Photographs are rich with information, but not only with information. They are relational objects: they express how we engage or did not engage into a relation with the object of our interest, how our exchanges created the opportunity through which a rich and striking photograph could be taken, how we become part of the scene we document (landscape, ritual or street scene), how frontiers have been blurred till the point that we do not know whether we shot the picture or were shot into the heart by what we saw and experienced.

It is a pity that the act of photographing has been trivialized to the extreme. Pictures are taken all the time with cell phones and other devices – pictures of ourselves mostly -, we look at themselves a few seconds before forgetting them forever, and putting them into a digital trash bin. When it comes to me, I like to sense the weight of a real camera resting on my shoulder, and to make this weigh the symbol of what it costs to take real photograph, photographs in which I have engaged my powers to relate, to feel and to create. At the end of the day, there always will be the pictures meant to go into the trash bin from the moment they were taken and the ones that will speak for a very long time of the tears and the laughs that together compose what can really be called “the salt of life.”

 

 

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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