Reading a Photograph

We are living in a world that is filled with visual media. We are surrounded by it at all times. In fact we are so used to it by now that we navigate through the image flood without really giving much thought on what we see. It's just another image in the ocean of billions of other ones. But it makes sense, no one has time to sacrifice on analyzing each photograph they come across. And in most of the cases it's not even necessary. There isn't too much meaning or thought behind a snapshot of one's lunch or yet another selfie. But when you are looking at a well thought out photograph, it is useful to understand how the visual language in photographs work, as it adds whole new dimensions to your experience as a viewer. Taking the time to observe and decode an image and the photographers intentions is called reading a photograph, which is what this weeks post is going to be about.

Portrait #16, South Africa, 2016, from the series 1994 by Pieter Hugo

Looking at this photograph by Pieter Hugo I believe we could all agree that the first thing you notice is the two young boys in the middle of the picture. It's clearly a portrait and the boys are the subject matter. Next thing we notice is that they are outside on a field of flowers. We are not in a studio so the photographer has decided to incorporate an environment to the picture. This makes it an environmental portrait. You can tell that the boys are African, both by looking at the picture and by the title. From the way the image is posed and by the dynamic of the two you could conclude that they are most likely brothers, an older brother carrying his younger sibling. The older boy is wearing a coat that is too big for him and the younger boy is topless and bare feet.

All of the above is analyzing the subject matter: What's in the photograph? This is how you start looking at a photograph. Simply, just by noticing what is being portrayed. What is it a picture of? Also an important thing to take into consideration. in addition to what is in the picture, is what is not in the picture. In this case we don't have a big plane of field so we can't really locate where the flower field is. Is it next to a village? How big it is? Are there any other people around? By not showing us the photographer has made a conscious decision that we have to realize when analyzing the image. 

This leads us to the next aspect of reading a photograph, which is form: How is the photograph composed? 

In this case the subject is placed right in the middle of the frame and there is no doubt for the viewer where the photographer has intended to center the attention. The use of shallow depth of field furthermore places the emphasis on the boys who are the only thing completely in focus. Also the placement of the out-of-focus flowers on the foreground gives dimension to the photograph as well as a scale between the heights of the children and the flowers. 

Medium: What materials and processes were used? Could be the next question you want to ask from yourself while decoding a photograph. Sometimes an alternative process of making the image can carry as much importance as what is seen as the end result.

With this picture there is nothing particularly unique in the technique it was made. The picture is shot in color, and probably shot with a medium or large format film camera. Working with color is artist's choice and effects how we read the photograph. The color scheme is soothing almost monochromatic presentation of warm nudes, browns, and yellows, with the little splash of blue in the boys jeans in the middle of the frame, which compliments the otherwise warm tone range.  Again, a way to lead the viewers eye to where it's intended to be.

Context: What were the circumstances in which the photograph was made and what for? is necessary to take into consideration, as time and place where the picture was takes as well as background of the photographer, can completely change the meaning and how you read the photograph. 

For this image we know that it's taken in 2016 in South Africa. The series on the other hand is called 1994, which has to have some kind of relation to the picture. For this information we want to read the Artist Statement which is few paragraphs in which the artist explains what the work is about.

This specific series gets much deeper and whole new perspective after reading the artist statement here as you come to understand where the artist is coming from and why he is creating this work. In this series Hugo takes portraits of children born after 1994 in Rwanda and South Africa, the year of the Rwandan genocides and of the end of Apartheid in South Africa. He notices that the children born without the burden of the past have different, innocently fresh look on life compared to those who have lived through abysses of the times prior 1994. We also learn that Hugo is South African himself, which puts him in to experts position in the contrary of that if he was coming to Africa from somewhere else. He also is a father which affects the way he sees children. All of these things we now know change our perception of the portrait.

Finally, after going through all these steps, we are ready to analyze the content: What story is the photograph telling?

This is the interesting part as everyone, from the same ingredients, build their own interpretation, their own story, based on their unique qualities, perception, personal experiences and background where they are coming from.

This is what I get from it: 

This photograph is a portrait of two young South African boys . It speaks about innocence and hope. These two young boys have born into a world in which it is possible for them to see a brighter tomorrow without oppression. Even though the expressions in the boys faces are heavy the color palette in the image makes it feel more positive. As if these kids can't escape the fact that life in a third world country is not easy, it makes you grow up faster than you should, but they don't seem capitulated by that, the opposite actually. They seem determined to see a new era in the history of their county, in which people, as the field they are standing in, flourish because people instead of putting each other down, lift them up, carry them and help them for mutual wellbeing and happiness.

Now I will use my own photograph and go through the same process of reading it. 

Camouflage 1/3, 2017 by Lotta Lemetti

First thing we notice is that there is a green plant in the middle of the frame and a girl standing behind it. She holds a smaller green plant on top of her head. The image is titled Camouflage 1/3, which suggests that she is trying to hide, but that doesn't really make sense because you can clearly see her. This suggests that the picture speaks about something else. 

The image is taken indoors, in a corner of an apartment. In addition to the plant and the girl you can only see white walls, a little bit of a window and a power socket. Everything else is white except for the green plants. They are taken from their natural habitat and brought into the human world. At the same time the girl who is in her world, the human world, tries to be a part of the plants. This makes up an odd dynamic and nothing in the picture seems to be "normal" anymore. 

For me, the image speaks about finding ones place in the world, the odd ones out and the struggle of trying to blend in to become something that you'll never be. A human will never be a plant. Hiding behind one or trying to become one will only make her stand out even more as something that is out of place. Be yourself!


- Lotta