The Function of a Photograph

St. Louis. I was there. Doesn’t this picture prove that? Standing within the famous St. Louis arch, I put my camera up to the glass on one of the small windows and took this picture of my view from above. But because I’m not in this picture, nor is any person for that matter, how would someone know that I actually took this picture myself and didn’t simply find it on the Internet or borrow it from a friend who had visited? This picture is my evidence that I visited this Midwest city, yet how exactly is it that a photograph without people actually garners any credibility? I could simply be using another picture to illustrate the things that I had seen. Yet, would that really matter?

I think so.

In Sebald’s stories, photographs are interspersed between the text to illustrate locations he mentions. Many of them are simple images – photos of trees and street corners and interior rooms – yet they prove to the reader that the places Sebald mentions really exist. It is interesting to discuss whether the pictures are actually Sebald’s or whether they were simply inserted with the intent of providing a visual illustration of the images Sebald paints with words. More interesting, in my opinion, however, is to think about how using someone else’s photographs to illustrate your own story changes the way an author uses photography within a story. As a photographer, you have the opportunity to select what falls within the limitations of the lens. This is done with intention and allows you the chance to focus on particular elements in a scene and leave out details you feel are insignificant. When telling a story, then, you – as the photographer and writer – can talk about the photograph in ways that no other person can. You alone know how you felt at the moment when a particular picture was taken and what was happening just outside the frame of the picture.

In Barthes text, he describes his photographs with extraordinary detail even though they are (generally) presented to the reader. This is because only he can describe the photographs with the utmost accuracy and provide background information that the reader could never know on his or her own. In Sebald’s text, however, he uses language to provide vivid descriptions and the photographs seem to come as an afterthought. He cannot tell us more about the pictures that we could surmise ourselves if he did not, in fact, actually take them. The photographs also cannot be used to highlight significant details within the story as whatever is framed within the photograph was not framed by Sebald. In no way does this reduce the significance of photography within a story, but I believe that it changes it. When photographs are merely used for evidence, they seem to only support the story, not help to create it.

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