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THE AMORAL LANGUAGE OF PHOTOGRAPHY

(Photo: Civil War Reenactment, North Carolina by Carol M. Highsmith)

For Strant VOL 004; ISS 002 I wrote in Photos Without Certainty that “the photograph shows specifics, insinuates universals, but itself is without morality.” Based on this assertion, if one would agree that photography is a language then we could say that photography is an amoral language, one that does not inform our notion of right from wrong. In considering photography amoral, this postulation might have been more scientifically grounded than I had supposed. A study titled, How Foreign Language Shapes Moral Judgment by Janet Geipel of the University of Trento in Italy proposes that, “the influence of foreign language is best explained by a reduced activation of social and moral norms when making moral judgments.” In the study participants were presented scenarios and asked to judge the morality of each scenario. The participants were bilingual and their judgments had to be made in their second or foreign language. In doing so, “the use of a foreign language promoted less severe moral judgments.” In short, the study suggested that when using one’s second language people are less emotional and more analytical.

The act of photography is often emotional, impassioned, or motivated by personal beliefs. And those beliefs are informed by morals, our sense of right from wrong. The act of photography then, is a bearing of judgment on the observable world. Consider Robert Adams’ photographs of the changing landscape or even the less obvious but still personally informed work of Lee Friedlander who imposes his own order on the social landscape. Photography, whether it be to embrace or rebuff, is a reaction to what is seen. That act however, should be balanced with a good sense of critical thinking or the ability to be analytical of the topic at hand, that is to say, the photographic subject matter. This second act is akin to the task presented to the participants of Geipel’s study.

Fortunately for most I would argue, photography is a second language. Although this is perhaps trending in a more visually informed direction through technology’s embrace of the visual language (think Instagram), the visual language is still secondary to our ability to communicate in written or oral form. If this is the case then, perhaps this is why conflict and war photographs for instance elicit such a varied, sometimes visceral, sometimes apathetic response. This shortcoming, or lack of agreement, in processing conflict and war photography is not that the photographs are not impactful but rather, when translating our immediate response to the visual language to written or oral language we bring to that conflict or war photograph our moral sensibility. That effort, that study of photography is I believe, an effort to improve upon or at the very least, to describe ourselves. Despite the lack of an ultimate truth within photography it is a search for pragmatic objectivity. Philosopher Richard Rorty says that in objectivity we attempt to describe ourselves “as standing in immediate relation to a nonhuman reality.” Through photography as we do through many nonhuman associations and especially those of the arts be it poetry, photography, or literature to name a few, we attempt to place ourselves in a larger moral context. However this desire as Rorty says, is “not the desire to escape the limitations of one’s community, but simply the desire for as much intersubjective agreement as possible, the desire to extend the reference of ‘us’ as far as we can.”

I don’t know that we can describe ourselves without a moral compass. Or that we can stand in any sort of agreement without morality. Whether we define ourselves in accord or in contrast to a particular morality is subject to individualities and collective reason. I would argue however, that photography by being amoral and a second language, might provide a starting point for a meaningful and symbiotic dialogue of morality. One that is objective, informed by “nonhuman reality” and intersubjective in that it helps to relate “us” to the observable world at large, that which is photographic. If only we could learn to speak the visual language.

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