December 3, 2008

Context Matters

The above photograph was taken in the summer of 2005
at an anti-war rally in downtown San Diego.

The above photograph was taken in the summer of 2004
during a trip that I made to Costa Rica. I had just eaten
dinner, and was walking with friends when I noticed this
gathering of street performers.

The above photograph was taken in the summer of 2007
during my trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. This was taken in
the zocalo, where vendors, street artists, and others
congregated in the tourist center, awaiting passersby.

Some people argue that photographs and other visual images speak for themselves, and that descriptive captions should not be added to them (this is an argument that I see more commonly from art photographers). At the same time, in many ethnographies, photographs are additions to the mainly textual argument that is presented...and while they often have short captions, there is usually very little consideration of the the context of the photograph itself--when it was taken, who took it, what was happening at the moment, etc.

The "meaning" of a photograph can be easily manipulated, taken out of context, or changed completely. Controlling that meaning can be very difficult, and is sometimes impossible. This is especially true when images become available online, where people can grab them and use them for a variety of purposes that completely escape the original context of production.

So what can be done about this? Is it possible to control such meanings? Saussure and Derrida, among others, argued that once something is produced, it automatically starts to lose its original meaning--and this is something that authors (they were talking about texts), and in this case photographers, can never control.

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