The Cat, the Photograph and the In-Between

This essay is presented as a pre-publication of Trigger #2: Uncertainty which will appear in its printed version in the first week of November 2020. This issue deals with the normative potentials of the speculative in documentary photography, film and visual arts. With essay contributions by, among many others, Duncan Forbes, Liz Orton, T.J. Demos, Zeynep Kubat and Steven Humblet. Artist contributions by, among others, Hoda Afshar, George Senga, Max Pinckers and Chao Maina. Trigger #2: Uncertainty is a collaboration between FOMU (Antwerp), The School of Speculative Documentary (Max Pinckers, Michiel De Cleene) and Fw:Books (Amsterdam).

Fred Ritchin started answering our call on Uncertainty before the pandemic, but soon realised that, as human life became even more uncertain, a 'reconsideration of both the beneficial and destructive uses of images became more urgent'. Trigger shares his 'timely' reflections in advance, as a way to open up public debate on photography's 'open-ended potentialities' during these challenging times.

Cover image: screenshot from '100,000 faces', project by Matt Korostoff.

Fred Ritchin

17 aug. 2020 • 10 min

I began writing this essay before the pandemic, when human life was more certain. I was reflecting on quantum physics in order to reframe photography as a means of delineating possibilities rather than affirming certitudes, as an attempt to choose, in a fractional second, from among many parallel universes. Put another way, instead of the old bromide that the camera never lies, the deeper truth may be that the camera always lies and that this fictive aspect of photography is what’s now most appreciated.

In the same vein, the concept that a photograph is worth a thousand words becomes both absurd and intriguing. How is it that we’ve been writing captions of only a sentence or two to explain images that are so complex as to be equivalent to a thousand words? The caption, it seems to me, represents a quantum collapse, forcing the potentialities of the photograph to resolve and the alleged cloud of a thousand words to evaporate. No longer can the cat be both alive and dead.This references Schrödinger’s 1935 thought experiment. The photograph’s rich ambiguity, seen as antithetical to its rapid consumption, is denied in large part because it questions any version of existence as definitive. Such complexity also makes the photograph difficult to quickly scan on Instagram and other social media platforms.

If we are intent, then, on celebrating rather than constraining the richness of photographs – if we aim ‘to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers’, as James Baldwin once put itCited in Claudine Rankine. 2014. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf. She goes on to write: “He might have been channeling Dostoyevsky’s statement that ‘we have all the answers. It is the questions we do not know.’” – we might seriously reconsider our vocabulary as it relates to the photographic act. It may be better to avoid words like ‘shooting’, ‘capturing’ or ‘freezing’ – even the phrase ‘taking a picture’ – terms that can be seen as aggressive and acquisitional, as in the ‘taking’ of a soul or property, or in the colonising of another.

Perhaps it is time to pivot more to the making of photographs in collaboration with our subjects, both animate and inanimate, locating at times an emergent harmony in this process (this is a reason why there’s no extensive history of photography from the perspectives of those photographed). The resulting image can be thought of as emblematic of a shared psychic practice, a manifestation of a relationship rather than its concretisation.

With such thoughts in mind during the lockdown, I asked my students whom I was teaching remotely to make interactive portraits of people via Zoom, asking their subjects whether and to what extent the portrait represented them while recording their answers explaining how and why. If so inclined, the reader or viewer of the photograph could then click on an icon and hear the responses. In this experiment the subjects emerged as people with agency who became, to a large extent, co-authors of the image and essential interpreters of its meanings. It was as if we had somehow ended up in the nineteenth century with tripods and box cameras, spending time engaging with those we photograph rather than being able to quickly move away. Such interactive portraits can be made of a migrant or homeless person, people often made to represent a specific, victimised population rather than appreciated for their individuality. When I’ve spoken of this idea with professionals, their responses have been largely negative: this kind of sharing interferes with their authority and control.

Others see it differently. Josué Rivas, a photographer who works in indigenous communities and who had been in another of my classes, recently described this relationship as ‘about creating an image in a collaborative way, and if you do so with an intention, it becomes a ritual. It’s having a moment to share and to collaborate. The people in the image have the power, not me.’ The image that results is an artifact of the exchange.

These reflections on the open-ended potentialities of image making were harshly interrupted. Coinciding as they did with the mounting ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, the viciously short-sighted politics that exacerbated it and the brutal police murder of George Floyd that made explicit society’s extensive systemic racism, the reconsideration of both the beneficial and destructive uses of images became even more urgent. I returned to a foreword I had written for Kike Arnal’s 2010 book of photographs, In the Shadow of Power; I wrote that if the subject of his book – Washington, DC – were a country, the 72-year life expectancy of its people, primarily people of colour, would place it 120th in the world, fifty places behind Mexico and fourteen behind the Gaza Strip – all despite its being the seat of the U.S. government and its budget of some three trillion dollars. Updating the research, I have now found a more recent study that put the life expectancy of people in one primarily Black neighbourhood at 67, whereas in a considerably wealthier and largely White neighbourhood, it was 94 – a difference of 27 years. Another slightly older study reported that Black men in Washington, D.C., have a life expectancy of 68 years, while White men in the same city are projected to live, on average, until age 83, with Black women there having a life expectancy nine years less than that of White women.

Obviously, an enormous amount of work must be done to expose and correct these and other systemic injustices, but some students of documentary photography where I teach were suddenly announcing, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, that they were re-thinking their careers, feeling that they had too much privilege or unsure if there was a place for them. The act of photographic witnessing was being aggressively challenged and its ethics questioned. An open letter addressed to the administration at the International Center of Photography in New York, written by many former students and staff (some of whom had recently occupied prominent positions), demanded both that current ‘students remove all online photos of protesters showing distinguishing features immediately’ as well as the creation of a ‘framework [for disciplining students] who refuse to take down [posts that place Black, Brown and/or Indigenous people at risk].’

Furthermore, various publications had run articles about apps that can render faces unidentifiable in photographs, and there were aggressive calls for their use when depicting protestors. Some had begun to describe practicing photographers as collaborators in league with the surveillance state rather than witnesses to a massive uprising against longstanding racist policies.

There were other views as well. Brent Lewis, a photo editor at the New York Times and cofounder of Diversify Photo, a platform dedicated to showcasing the work of Black, Indigenous and Coloured photographers, responded in Wired magazine: ‘If photographers blurred the faces of the marchers and protesters from the Civil Rights Movements, would the needle have moved as much in the 1960s? John Lewis and other protesters being beaten while marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Black adults and children being sprayed with water hoses: What would these iconic, galvanizing images become if you couldn’t look into the eyes of the oppressed and feel what they were feeling? If you couldn’t recognize the humanity and perseverance they must have to put their lives on the line for a better, more equitable tomorrow?’

He continued, ‘If you’re taking photos of Black bodies, it’s crucial to know the history of the image when it comes to Black uprisings. Knowing that ensures you know that by hiding Black bodies, you aren’t avoiding the problem, you’re part of it.’ And, in addition, he wrote that ‘it comes down to speaking with the people protesting. These people want to be heard and have things to say, otherwise they wouldn’t be out there.’

In a FOTODEMIC-sponsored town hall discussion I moderated with Nina Berman, Brian Palmer and Bayeté Ross Smith, the consensus was that the problem lies with the predatory behaviours of photographers looking to exploit a spectacle rather than engage with the humanity of protestors. The emphasis, the panel concluded, instead of an unattainable standard of objectivity by the observer, should be to attempt fairness and transparency in one’s approach. As the antithesis of a predatory approach, Smith suggested that photographers can be ‘generous,’ acknowledging a shared humanity.

Similarly, several decades ago, English critic John Berger was dismissive of the public, iconic photograph. He had his own idea on how to counter spectacle and provide essential context, to transcend the distinctions between the private and public uses of photography: ‘The task of an alternative photography is to incorporate photography into social and political memory, instead of using it as a substitute which encourages the atrophy of any such memory…. For the photographer this means thinking of her or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed. The distinction is crucial.’John Berger. 2009. ‘Uses of Photography'. In Another Way of Telling. London: Bloomsbury. 62. Despite one’s physical proximity, the “othering” often at the heart of photojournalistic enterprises can result in considerable distancing.

The roles of photographs in coverage of the pandemic and commemorating its victims were also a subject of considerable discussion. The New York Times’s stunning all-type front page of Sunday 24 May memorialised 1,000 of the nearly 100,000 Americans who had died of the virus by that point, and it featured no photographs. The names of the dead filled several pages and included their ages, hometowns and a short phrase describing a key aspect of each of their lives. The Times explained that it wanted ‘to represent the number in a way that conveyed both the vastness and the variety of lives lost’ while realising ‘there’s a little bit of a fatigue with the data’ that is reported daily. (A different version was published online using small, anonymous silhouettes of people.)

Many wondered why the editors didn’t publish photographs to represent each of the individuals lost to the virus, much as LIFE magazine had done in 1969, when it presented the identity photographs of more than 200 soldiers killed during one week of the Vietnam War.The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll,’ Life magazine, June 27, 1969 That issue, unlike previous ones that had shown numerous pictures of combat, was widely seen as LIFE turning against the war. Why did the Times choose not to make the dead visible as a way of challenging a government that had, with its short-sighted and destructive policies, considerably exacerbated the number of people who suffered and died from the virus?

One possible answer may be that now, when image is so contested, it may be more respectful to the dead to keep them out of the fray. It also may be that for many, the photograph, once viewed as a means of establishing and affirming identity, no longer plays that role, having lost much of its credibility as a societal reference. And it may also be that the Times would have faced significant criticism if it published photographs that did not accurately represent the demographics of those who died, particularly considering that certain populations, including African Americans and Latinxs, were dying at much higher rates than Whites.

And then I viewed an online project called 100,000 faces meant to memorialise nearly all the Americans who had died of the virus at that time. There were many screens of photographs, or what looked like photographs, ‘intended to help visitors understand the massive scale of this event by putting a human face on each person lost.’ But then one reads: ‘The faces on this page do not and have never existed.’

Matt Korostoff, the software engineer behind the project, explained the images as having been ‘generated by a computer. They have been curated to provide a demographically accurate view of the actual covid-19 victims, accounting for age, race, and gender.’ The viewer is asked to ‘try to suspend your disbelief of these virtual images and consider the real person symbolized by each one—the life they lived, the way they died, and the family they left behind.’ According to Korostoff, for technical reasons, the project ‘uses 300 unique images, each one repeated in a random order enough times to equal 113,000.’

Parallel to the debate on whether showing the faces of people protesting racism is a way of honouring their beliefs or targeting them for arrest, there are evidently further conundrums in the Age of Image. Commemorating those who have died in a pandemic without showing their faces or doing so with images that represent no one makes this apocalyptic moment all the more abstract. Have we entered, perhaps unknowingly, a post-photographic era in which the signifier and signified have been, or must be, delinked?

The increasingly malleable photograph is no longer thought of as providing the certitude it once did. Instead, it is thought of as self-serving and potentially incendiary. One of its newer and most popular variants, for example, the selfie, is less a self-portrait emphasising introspection and more an attempt to affirm one’s own social standing, a kind of branding.

There’s now a diminished ‘reality-based community’, a phrase that was attributed in 2004 by journalist Ron Suskind to an official in President George W. Bush’s administration who denigrated critics of government policies as people basing their judgements on facts: ‘The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”… “That's not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."'

In 1990, I published a book, In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography, just as software was being introduced that would make image manipulation considerably more efficient, cheaper and de rigueur. My sense then was that the photograph would lose its ability to provide a credible counterpoint to government pronouncements or personal belief systems. As people became sceptical of its authenticity, the photograph would no longer be able to dialectically engage with society about the nature of existence. Instead, this software would be utilised, god-like, to remake the world in our own image – much as the official in Bush’s government later asserted.

I would now argue that an acknowledgment of the uncertainties that encourage the reconsideration of our own perspectives should be welcomed and explored. But this should not be done as a means to cynically disconnect the signifier and the signified in order to sanction preconceptions and maliciously propagate distortions, many of them self-serving. There is an enormous difference between these two approaches. To function as a society, to contemplate and act, we must be able to agree upon what’s happening, even as we may disagree on how to respond.

Is the cat alive or dead? Yes, to both. But sometimes we do have to decide.

Fred Ritchin is Dean Emeritus of the International Center of Photography where he has taught since 1979. He was also professor of Photography and Imaging at New York University (1991-2014) where he co-founded the Photography and Human Rights program, now called the Photography and Social Justice program hosted by the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York and supported by the Magnum Foundation. Ritchin served as picture editor of the New York Times Magazine (1978-82), executive editor of Camera Arts magazine (1982-83), and in 1999 co-founded and directed PixelPress, an experimental online publication that collaborated on humanitarian initiatives to end polio globally, to advance the Millennium Development Goals, and to support the education of children orphaned by the Rwandan genocide, among other initiatives. He created the first multimedia version of the New York Times in 1994-95 and conceived and edited the online project “Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace,” nominated in 1997 for a Pulitzer Prize in public service. His books on the future of imaging include In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography (1990), After Photography (2008) and Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen (2013). He has curated many exhibitions, including “An Uncertain Grace: The Photographs of Sebastião Salgado,” “On Violence and Memory,” and “Contemporary Latin American Photographers.” Ritchin is also the founding advisor of, an online publication recently created by graduates of the ICP..

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