Achieving true objectivity through photographic work is nearly impossible. Once the camera is there, the scene, the people involved, the situation—it’s altered, it’s different from what it would be like if the camera wasn’t there. Yes, most of the time it’s such a minuscule change, a very slight difference, but the more people are aware of that their situation or event is being captured or recorded, the more subjectively they’re going to represent themselves based on who is there documenting them or their situation.
I thought of all this after reading pieces of William Couch’s These Are Our Lives and while looking through a bunch of the pictures on the Yale Photogrammar website. I wonder how many of these pictures are actually “objective” and how many of them are staged. The idea that all these pictures could be objective really gets me thinking about what the Photogrammar website intends to preserve through archiving these images.
I also thought of the word “authenticity”. The authenticity of Couch’s stories, the authenticity of the Photogrammar photographs, the authenticity of the work of the Federal Writer’s Project. Two years ago, during my freshman year, I took the class FOLK 202 (also ENGL 202), Introduction to Folklore. The class mainly focused on Southern Appalachian folklore and history, but some of the themes and stories we are discussing in class overlap with things we learned about and read in FOLK 202.
The main reason I thought back to that class, though, was because we also talked a lot about objectivity and authenticity. My professor believed that once anything was taken out of its original context, it’s no longer authentic, no matter how hard you try to preserve its original state. He was mostly talking about physical objects that wind up in museums, but I feel the same goes for these photographs. As objective as the pictures may have been when they were taken, viewing them now, we’re going to have a different view on them, a different vantage point. When we see these pictures, we are automatically going to have a completely unique and different reaction to them than we would have if we had actually been alive during the time of the photograph and experienced it for ourselves. We are so far removed from those photographs that sometimes it’s hard to imagine that we really understand what they are supposed to mean at all.
For example, this photograph of a Methodist church in Unionville Center, Ohio from the Photogrammar website looks candid enough, but how are we really supposed to know what was going on, and if those actions were truly portrayed in the final photograph, or if people altered themselves because they knew that the photo was being taken.
The only way to discover their authentic meaning, would be to go back in time and be in that very moment ourselves. But alas, we do not have a time travelling DeLorean that would enable us to do so…