Design a site like this with
Get started

Reading Photographs – In Our Own Image, by Fred Ritchin

Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips created the image, titled: Photo Op, in 2005.

From Fred Ritchin’s book, In Our Own Image, his essay, Reading Photographs, (Ritchin, 2010) discusses the authenticity of a photograph. He asks, …after all that is happening in computer imaging can one safeguard the integrity of the photograph in its populist role as societal informant? (p.72, Ritchin, 2010). His reason for posing this question is that with the advent of digital photography, he believes that photography may need protecting from the possibility of public rejection, as unreliable, and therefor being excluded from public debate.

Ritchin argues that, as a society it is extremely urgent that we,….reject the myth of the photograph’s automatic efficacy and reliability, particularly when the myth is soon to be punctured. In order to contemplate its future role in society and the impact of new technologies, it is necessary to at least acknowledge that photography is highly interpretive, ambiguous, culturally specific, and heavily dependant upon contextualisation by text and layout. (p.72, Ritchin, 2010). With the advent of digital photography and digital manipulation / editing of photographs, Ritchin suggests that for his discussion, and in response to the use and abuse of electronic imaging techniques,particularly those published in a journalistic context, he should first divide them into two categories of fiction and non-fiction. …or to label images as to their source and approach, such as “computer-generated” or “photo-illustration.” (p.72, Ritchin, 2010).

Expanding on this subject Ritchin questions…what would photographic fiction be if “The camera never lies”? Is only a photograph that has been subjected to physical modification after the fact fictitious? Or, to take the contrasting view, are all photographs fictions by virtue of being decontextualised representations of moments that do not actually exist independently? What then is nonfiction photography? (p.72, Ritchin, 2010). Ritchin suggests that a nonfiction photograph such as a journalistic or documentary image, would be expected to, adhere to the facts while attempting, as best it can, to get at a situation’s essence. (p.72, Ritchin, 2010). He goes on to argue that facts alone can be misleading, when based on the reliance of the camera’s ‘descriptive value‘.

As an example Ritchin refers to a Life magazine article that quizzed its readers as to who they thought were the criminals and who were mystery writers, based on mug shot style photos. The intention was to disprove the 19th century idea of the criminal face and although this theory had already been dismissed Life wanted to demonstrate that the idea of the ‘criminal look’ was over rated. In fact all of the convicted criminals (if not already recognised from past publicity could all have been confused for the mystery writers and some mystery writers seen as being the criminals. (p.74-75, Ritchin, 2010). This was because the lighting, pose and dress of the sitters created impressions that did not necessarily represent the true nature of the person. For example one photo, a man photographed from slightly above, wearing a suit, looking relaxed, was in fact a rapist and murderer and a man looking more like the stereo typical criminal with a black eye patch was a writer.

Another example Ritchin offers is from the Washington Star, that used conventional cropping to create three interpretations of an event captured on a single photo. John Kennedy had a reputation as a womaniser and so the photo was cropped three ways, one with Kennedy leaving a gala on his own, the second cropped to include an attractive woman and the last to include the full party that includes a priest.

Ritchin sites the most famous ambiguous photograph and probably the contentious is that of the Falling Soldier, (1936) taken by Robert Capa during the Spanish civil war. Some suggest that this picture is a fake, staged, not a true moment of a soldier’s death. It was in fact Life magazine’s caption, “The instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head,” (1937) that gave this picture both its meaning and status.

The Falling Soldier, (1936) Robert Capa

The author of Robert Capa’s biography defends the photograph of the Falling Soldier for its symbolic implications and not for its literal accuracy. However, Ritchin goes on to argue that, in that case, why not just simply set up staged photographs, say for example to ask a Chinese man to act out a suicide in front of the American Embassy in protest of the treatment of his fellow countrymen. The man won’t die and the message should be just as effective. But this of course would not be the case.

In Ritchin’s most convincing argument, he sites a story of what happened in Peru during an experiment to teach Spanish to the Indian population. Their problem was that many were illiterate and also spoke many different languages an dialects; so they looked at ways to communicate and teach through visually recognizable language codes. They came up with the idea of giving the Indian children cameras then asking them questions to elicit an answer. A question put to them was what the children thought of exploitation and what they associated it with visually. The assessors were surprised by the responses, instead of getting cliche type pictures of say ‘Uncle Sam’ pictures, they got very different responses. One child came back with a photograph of a nail on a wall. At first they thought that the children has misunderstood the question; but on further investigation they learned this was not the case. The child with the photo of the nail lived in an extremely poor town and everyday to earn some money, the children walked several miles to Lima to shine shoes. In order not the have to carry back and forth the heavy boxes that contained the shoe cleaning kit, they rented a nail from a man in order to hang their boxes from. The man charged fifty percent of the children’s earnings.

With this type of language and understanding a photograph of a Cuban child sitting at a school desk, holding a pencil can either represent a poor Cuban education system or represent the US embargo that makes pencils a valuable commodity in Cuba. Looked at in this way, photography becomes more variegated, less an automatic validation of the way things are. It is like other communication systems, a way of asserting one’s own feelings through the prism of one’s own culture. (p.90, Ritchin, 2010).

Ritchin found that cultural differences can play a major factor in trying to read photographs, his experience when trying to read photographs taken by Latin American photographers when he visited an exhibition in Havana. “I found myself an outsider scratching at surfaces to find wisps of meaning...While impossible to generalise completely, my sense was that multifaceted work, reflecting a diversity of national identities as well as individual perspectives, is in essential ways different from the more generally complex, technically polished, and self-referential imagery United States culture produces.” (p.90, Ritchin, 2010).


Published by shauncn512659

Hi, I am an OCA student studying for an Art degree in Photography , my student number is 512659. My e-mail is:

3 thoughts on “Reading Photographs – In Our Own Image, by Fred Ritchin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: