Is Photography a foreign language everyone thinks they can speak?

April 23, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

The next time you look at a photograph, or capture one yourself and review it, think about this comment by American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia1:


Photography is a foreign language everyone thinks he speaks


What do you think he meant by this? Is he being a photography snob? Is he baulking against the idea that, since the introduction of the Kodak Brownie (1900) through to, now, when most people in the world have mobile phones with cameras fitted, that everyone believes they’re a photographer? That they all understand what photography is and the meaning of any picture is obvious? 


Or, is he trying to help us, get us to look harder, think more clearly about what we’re viewing or capturing, and develop our understanding of this visual art form? Maybe he agrees with the words of Lisette Model2 that I quoted in an earlier blog What Key Elements Must exist in any Photograph, for it to be considered Great?:


Photography is the easiest of arts but that, perhaps, this is what makes it the hardest.


Take a closer look either at the attached photograph, or one of your preference. What do you see? Just a two-dimensional representation of a scene, people, portrait, ornament, animal, plant, tool, or whatever? Or do you see something else? What about the time of day the picture was taken? What about the place in which it was captured? And the perspective chosen? Also, is there an element of the photographer in what you’re looking at, their style, interpretation, visual voice?

My TimeMy Time

Considerations don’t end there. You may fully appreciate what’s in the frame but what are the implications for what was left out of the frame? By framing the photograph in the way that you see it, has this changed the meaning of what this photograph is about? Is it, in fact, a mis-leading representation of what it purports to represent? 


If we accept the subject within the frame is what it is, another set of thoughts arise. What was occurring before the photograph was captured? And what happened after? Would you like to know, in order to further inform your interpretation?


Arguably, the most interesting element to consider when you’re looking at the photograph, is you, the viewer. What do you bring to the interpretation of the picture? Does your personal historical, cultural, or educational background impact on the way you view all photographs? And have you allowed your self to skew your thoughts about the image you’re looking at now?


Finally, when it comes to the act of capturing photographs, what do you believe a camera knows about how to take a good picture? Does your camera have a say in your pictures? The truth is, whatever camera you use, or have ever used, they know nothing at all about picture taking. A camera is just a tool. The photograph you are looking at was made by a human. Which means that you are interpreting another human’s work.


It’s easy for all of us to take pictures. We might even capture what we consider to be good ones worthy of sharing with others on social media. But before you post them out there, have a think about what, precisely, you’re sharing. What are your images saying? How do you think people, from various backgrounds, will interpret your images? Will they care about them or your message? Do you care? 


None of this may matter to you. You’ll happily snap away to suit yourself and if others like your pictures, great. If, however, some or all of what’s been said does matter to you, then maybe Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Lisette Model aren’t just photography greats sounding elitist. Instead, perhaps their words can serve to move us all towards a deeper, more meaningful and satisfying photography journey. 


  1. Philip-Lorca diCorcia, American photographer, born 1951, known as an academic and for work that moves between documentary photography and planned staged theatrical images
  2. Lisette Model, Austrian-American photographer, 1901-1983, mainly known for getting up close to her human subjects and for capturing city life



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