Realism and Imagination

mickyatesAftermath, ContextualResearch, Critical Research Journal, Dark Tourism, Documentary, ICWeek11, Ideas, Informing Contexts, Journalism, Philosophy, Photography, Project Development 4 Comments

This week has been focused on completing the Critical Review. The recent Oral Presentation was well received, although I knew that for the CR, I needed to do less on personal history and biography, and more on critical theory.

I wrote and illustrated a draft, and got some very helpful feedback from Ashley – suggesting I could better explain the context for my current Work in Progress, amongst other things. She was right.

One area that has come into sharper focus over the past months is the relationship between realism and the imagination. In several posts (and the Critical review itself) I have considered how I want to engage the audience’s imagination, to encourage people to reconsider the Genocide, not only in terms of what happened, but more broadly, about why such atrocities still happen. I have also separately reflected in the nature of reality and imagination.

In this post, I am attempting a synthesis, to illustrate where I am in my practice.

Since the time of Barthes there has been something of a hopeless sense about the power of photographer to effect change. Can a photographer inspire an audience to imagine what could be, rather than simply view what was?

In considering the Winter Garden photograph, Barthes wrote:

‘The circle is closed, there is no escape … I cannot transform my grief, I cannot let my gaze drift; no culture will help me utter this suffering which I experience entirely on the level of the image’s finitude. … This is why, despite its codes, I cannot read a photograph‘. (Barthes, 1980: 90)

I wrote about this right at the beginning of the MA.

Jean-Paul Sartre is more positive about such possibilities, and Catherine Rau reminds us that Existentialism is all about change.

The Existentialist project, it will be remembered, is to move men to action which will change their world. Men are, of course, set in motion by having their feelings aroused; this all the arts can do in some degree or other‘. (Rau, 1950: 146-7).

Ironically, Barthes dedicated Camera Lucida to Sartre, yet missed this critical point in Sartre’s thinking. A photograph could be an analogon for the imagination, and thus engender change. To paraphrase a section from my earlier post:

Sartre made clear the distinction between perception and imagination. When we are conscious, we are conscious of something, and our consciousness can distinguish between what is imagined and what is perceived. Perception is about what is in front of us, reflecting a particular subject, and thus its ‘existential’ truths. Imagination can be anything – a synthesis of past experience, past perceptions, our disciplines and so forth. Imagination is a fundamental human freedom, and it breaks us free of our past, allowing us to think and do new things.

An image can take on new dimensions, beyond its actual physical properties, and because of  our intentions towards it. The photograph is a trigger to meaning, perhaps a self-reflection, which makes it much more than a ‘simple’ surface to be viewed. As viewers, we know that the analogon (the photograph) is not real in the sense that it is a representation, but we ascribe emotions and beliefs to it as if it was.

Photography since its beginnings has been associated, to one degree or another, with the representation of reality. Certain images stick in our collective cultural imagination and memory as iconic, and some of these in turn become part of a significant process of change.

Susan Sontag was wrong to put limits on our imagination. When discussing photographs of war, she commented:

We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is, and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine‘. (Sontag, 2003: 113).

Maybe we cannot know exactly what war is, or what being part of an atrocity feels like. But we can (and should) try to imagine it. Susie Linfield is one of the few to take Sontag head-on.

‘Sontag, more than anyone else, was responsible for establishing a tone of suspicion and distrust in photography criticism, and for teaching us that to be smart about photographs means to disparage them. I am writing, even more, against the work of Sontag’s postmodern and poststructuralist heirs, and their sour, arrogant disdain for the traditions, the practice and the ideals of documentary photography.

Unlike these critics I believe we need to respond to and learn from photographs rather than simply disassemble them; unlike these critics, I believe we need to look at, and into, what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is”’. (Linfield, 2010: XV).

Napalm Girl (Kim Phúc), photographed by Nick Ut, instantly showed the horror of war and the impact on civilians. Ut prefers to call the image Terror of War. It was both a social document, and a journalistic ‘one-off’. Richard Nixon even apparently ‘wondered if the image was fixed’, as he knew its impact on the public.

Nick Ut. 1972. Terror of War.

This photograph was ‘of its time’, and was part of a sea-change in public opinion about the war.

Today, of course, we usually get our news via TV and video. Occasionally, real-time citizen journalist photographs impact our consumption of news (see Notre Dame fire), but it is the 24/7 TV coverage that we inevitably turn to. Whilst still images do still (eventually?) stick in our cultural psyche, the power of photo-journalism and documentary is often disputed.

Martha Rosler makes it clear that all images are essentially political, and to impact an audience, to affect the imagination and thus some kind of change, we need to consider innovative visual strategies. Rosler writes:

‘Perhaps a radical documentary can be brought into existence. But the common acceptance of the idea that documentary preceded, supplants, transcends, or cures full, substantive social activism is an indicator that we do not yet have a real documentary’. (Rosler, 2004: pg. 196)

As I have pursued the Cambodia project, I have been looking for appropriate and innovative visual strategies, to get past both my personal history of indexical images, and the easy-to-forget pursuit of dark tourism.

I am seeking ways to get an audience interested enough to stop and think about the Genocide. Natalie Herschdorfer summed up a large part of the challenge:

Can peaceful, seemingly ordinary places evoke experiences of horror and death? Do the scars of history leave a permanent imprint on a landscape’? (Herschdorfer, 2011: 14).

Sophie Ristelhueber interprets that challenge very personally, impacting the way she photographs aftermath.

I have these obsessions … with the deep mark, with the ruptured surface, with scars and traces, traces that human beings are leaving on the earth. It is not a comment on the environment … it is metaphysical’. (Ristelhueber and Brutvan, 2001).

Hariman and Lucaites also helpfully suggest that:

What saves us from comprehensive superficiality is that we also have the capacity to artistically and interpretively enhance our texts and images, to load them with experience and with connections to other people, places, events, ideas, values, desires and dreams. And these ‘additions’ are part of the process of developing the public image’. (Hariman and Lucaites, 2016: 44).

In re-reading The Public Image, I was struck by the example of the birds, as shown in the header. In the first, the terrible image of the distressed bird, covered in oil, sparks thoughts not just about the bird, but about human complicity in what happened – our ecological mess.

AP Photo / Charlie Riedel. 2010. A bird is mired in oil on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast on Thursday, June 3, 2010.

In the second, whilst (unusually) seeing a common crow eat its prey triggers thoughts about the natural food chain, it does little to make us think about human involvement.

Odd Anderson / AFP / Getty Images. 2014. A crow eats its prey sitting on the roof of the Chancellery in Berlin on May 6, 2014.

In other words, two similarly framed images of a similar subject (a bird) connote quite different meanings and impact on our imagination. And note the importance of the caption, to add understanding of time and place.

We can enhance our photography in ways that can encourage imagination.

Hariman and Lucaites consequently suggested that there needs to be a deeper sense of realism than simply showing what is there – to be more than indexical. As photographers, we need to imbue meaning if we are to stir audiences.

Realism requires imagination to be more than mere information, but the imagination needs realism as well’. (Hariman and Lucaites, 2016: pg. 95).

The corollary, though, is also true. We can use images of realism to be part of that process of imagination.

John Berger commented:

The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe‘. (Berger, 1972: 8)

And he suggested that the immediate context is critical:

‘The meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it. Such authority as it retains, is distributed over the whole context in which it appears’. (1972: 29).

There is a powerful example in Ways of Seeing. Berger first captions an image by Van Gogh.

‘This is a landscape of a cornfield with birds flying out of it. Look at it a moment. Then turn the page’. (1972: 27).

Vincent Van Gogh. 1890. Wheatfield with Crows. Auvers-sur-Oise, July 1890. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Turning the page, Berger wrote:

‘This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself. (1972: 28).

Notwithstanding the fact that this is not the last picture that Van Gogh painted, the power of those captions to change the way we ‘see’ the image is palpable.

Even though the painting is totally unchanged, the caption changed its meaning, and it impacts our imagination (and memory) of the image. It is also an interesting question as to whether that change in caption alters the painting from being beautiful to being sublime.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in the Critique of Judgment (Part I, Critique of Aesthetic Judgment) noted that the viewer projects beauty onto natural objects, and that experiences of beauty create universal feelings of delight.

Kant wrote that

‘The beautiful and the sublime are similar in some respects. We like both for their own sake, and both presuppose that we make a judgment of reflection rather than either a judgment of sense or a logically determinative one’. (Kant, 1790: 97).

‘So it seems that we regard the beautiful as the exhibition of an indeterminate concept of the understanding, and the sublime as the exhibition of an indeterminate concept of reason’. (1790: 98).

I think the caption does change the image’s ‘beauty’, given the appeal of the associated idea and appeal to the imagination. But I suspect other viewers might think otherwise.

There are also numerous examples on the power and use of captions to deceive. Consider the evidence Colin Powell presented to the UN in 2003, about Iraqi Weapons of mass destruction. And then consider the alternate caption.

This is from Photography as a Weapon, by Errol Morris in the New York Times. The alternate captions are supplied by Daniel Mooney.

In many senses, this is an example of Flusser’s Apparatus – not in the sense of a single pre-programmed device, but as a nested system which includes the industrial, political, social, cultural and personal complexes. Each impinge on the development and use of the camera, and then the distribution of its images.

As Flusser states, photographer and apparatus merge:

The act of photography is like going on a hunt in which photographer and camera merge into one indivisible function. This is a hunt for new states of things, situations never seen before, for the improbable, for information. The structure of the act of photography is a quantum one: a doubt made up of points of hesitation and points of decision-making‘. (Flusser, 1983: 39).

Within those multiple decision points, in my own practice, I am to some extent ‘defeating Flusser’s pre-programmed apparatus’ by adding captions, with simple yet strong personal quotes. By incorporating a quote from Sarath’s stories from the time of the Genocide, I am hoping to make the audience stop and ponder.

It is my attempt to link present day, aftermath images to the past confirmation of atrocity, to speak to public imagination. The words affect both the meaning of the image, and its location in time.

Mick Yates. 2019. Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields). From the series A Prayer from Hell.

In a sense, I am using reality to construct something more. Perhaps I am attempting to create the hyperreal. Baudrillard wrote:

Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory’. (Baudrillard, 1981: 1).

And he went on:

It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real‘. (1981: 2).

The image of Choeung Ek is real. Even though, in using infrared, I am altering the aesthetic, it is recognisable as a representation of place. But the meaning of the image is linked directly to the quote. The combined meaning is what I intend.

I will leave it to my audiences to decide how successful it is.

Once the text is produced it is objectified, released, given birth, assuming its own career beyond the maker’s control. To understand it is to see its structure, its organisation, its references, its various interpretations‘. (Scheffler, 1991: 36).

We will see.



AP Photo / Charlie Riedel. 2010. A bird is mired in oil on the beach at East Grand Terre Island along the Louisiana coast on Thursday, June 3, 2010. From Harimam and Lucaites, pg. 85. Available at: (accessed 20/04/2019).

Odd Andersen / AFP / Getty Images. 2014. A crow eats its prey sitting on the roof of the Chancellory in Berlin on May 6, 2014. From Harimam and Lucaites, pg. 89. Available at: (accessed 20/04/2019).



BARTHES, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

BAUDRILLARD, Jean. 1981. Simulacra and Simulation. 1994 trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

BERGER, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. 2008 Edition. London: Penguin.

FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 2000 Edition. London: Reaktion Books.

HARIMAN, Robert & LUCAITES, John Louis. 2016. The Public Image: Photography and Civic Spectatorship. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press.

HERSCHDORFER, Natalie. 2011. Afterwards. London: Thames & Hudson.

KANT, Immanuel.1790. The Critique of Judgment (Part I, Critique of Aesthetic Judgment). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available at: (accessed 24/01/2018).

LINFIELD, Susie. 2010. The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MORRIS, Errol. 2008. Photography as a Weapon. New York Times. Available at: (accessed 20/04/2019).

RAU, Catherine. 1950. The Aesthetic Views of Jean-Paul Sartre. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Dec., 1950), pp. 139-147. Wiley, The American Society for Aesthetics. Available at: (accessed 06/02/2019).

RISTELHUEBER, Sophie and Brutvan, Cheryl. 2001. Details of the World. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts.

ROSLER, Martha. 2004. Decoys and Disruptions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

SARTRE, Jean-Paul. 1940. L’Imaginaire: Psychologie phénoménologique de l’imagination. English Ed. London: Routledge.

SCHEFFLER, Israel. 1991. In Praise of Cognitive Emotions. New York: Routledge.

SONTAG, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux.

VAN GOGH, Vincent. 1890. Wheatfield with Crows. Available at: (accessed 20/04/1990)

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