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The Thought Behind the Image

Boat being rowed by an old man with two kids fishing

Every image tells a story, but sometimes the story might not be what you think. I often get comments about the beauty of the work and the subject matter when I give or sell a print to someone. However, it is not very frequent that I get comments about the underlying subject, sometimes referred to as the subtext of the image.

Photographs can be deceiving that way. As a viewer, it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of reality, thinking the image is about the subject matter when the subject is really about something entirely different. As a result, we tend to equate photographs with reality rather than a construction made by the photographer.

Looking at the image above with the older man rowing the boat with two girls, I think we can all agree it is not about a man rowing a boat with two children onboard. Instead, it is about family, time spent together, making memories, or children building a bond with their grandfather – take your pick.

There is a famous demonstration of this provided by René Magritte with his painting of a Pipe from 1928.

Rene Magritte - this is not a pipe

The translation reads, "This is not a Pipe." Which is correct. It is not a pipe. Rather, it is a painting of a pipe which is somewhat different in several ways:

  • We tend to see pictures as a reflection of the truth – like the actual real event or object.

  • A photo is not about showing things as they were. It is a construction by the photographer. No different than a painting – other than being made by a man-machine interface.

  • A photograph includes the beliefs, biases, and vision of the photographer. Hence, a description of the images is an essential step in criticism, not a prelude.

  • Insightful descriptions or titles that help form an informed discourse about photographs.

Photography is even more challenging to access in terms of reality properly. It is a common misconception that a camera tells the truth; therefore, a photograph is an actual representation of reality. After all, everything is included when you take a picture - unlike painting, where the artist deliberately puts things into the image. I know we can remove and add stuff in photoshop, but that is not what I am talking about. The New York photographer Jay Maisel is famous for saying.

You are under no obligation to include everything you see in your photograph.

He means that as a photographer, even small location changes or how a picture is framed can make a massive difference in the final image. It can be shocking to see how different the work can be, coming from two different photographers standing next to each other and photographing the same scene.


Returning to the idea of subject and subject matter. Take a look at the following image. The subject is a lake in the early morning or evening without a title, beckoning you to run off the pier and jump into the water.

a pier jutting out into a lake at sunrise

But look what happens when I add the following Haiku, which fellow artist and writer Chris Poole wrote to go along with this image.

Grain fields feed the world Runoff stains the watershed Colorful dead lakes

This changes the conversation and starts to explain why the colour of the water seems odd. We are looking at a lake in the process of being killed by algae growth from the run-off fertilizer of the surrounding farms, and the last thing you want to do is to jump into this cesspool. So, the subject matter is a bridge into a colourful lake, while the actual subject is about pollution and climate change. The titles and descriptions of photographs help bring the viewer and the conversation into what the issue is, not what we think it is.

In the Stories Behind the Image blogs, I will delve into my work and provide posts about the images I discuss to provide insight into what I am photographing and my real intent with the photos. I hope you will find the exercise enlightening and make you appreciate and evaluate photography differently.


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