Week 2: The Index and the Icon


Everyone seems to want to defend their own reading and interpretation of an image that they have taken, especially their own images, and this includes me and my own images. It is interesting that through the forums this week I have noticed that many of the descriptions of the presented images do not necessarily translate to what I can see in the image. Although, what is being written of the image is indeed what the photographer believes that image to be about, or what did occur at the moment of when that image was captured, it is telling that with this text removed, the image would read differently to me.

Context and meaning are going to fall away from the image, especially over time (Sontag, 1979, p. 106), so it is important to realise that your work will inevitably be read in multiple ways. I do find this somewhat a challenging concept in the present as the temptation and habit of adding a certain amount of attributed information is ever present in the attempt to help others understand my work. I guess, that is the challenge for many practitioners, do we have the confidence to remove all of this attributed reading of our own photography to allow others carte blanche to make their own assumptions and interpretations.

Figure 1. Nadav Kander’s triangle (Kander, 2019).

Authenticity appears to me, bound by context, or at least a viewer’s understanding of context. Representation is bound by the subject’s understanding of the use of the image. Is it for authors to attribute either context, or use without the collaboration of the other two. This is a clear link to the triangle (Fig. 1) that Nadav Kander refers to (Kander, 2019), and the death of the author analysis by Roland Barthes (Barthes, 1977, pp. 142-149).

Where this applies to my own work, I think that I am quite interested in the notion of the photograph as a valuable index of truth (Snyder & Allen, 1975, p. 159). As I have commented in the previous forum, I think that when you consider the definition of representation, it is to take the broad consensus of ideas and opinions which I think is where the photograph can occupy and create authenticity. So it is not a complete evidential and based on all the facts, however there are traces of facts embedded in the image, perpetuated by the notion of its naturalistic appearance (1975, p. 144). This potentially, has more in common with ideology which assumes much about reality and certainly John Berger notes this by stating that photography can play an important role in ideological struggle, in reference to the way media use photography (Berger, 2013, p. 21).

For my work to move forward, I need to consider the indexical nature of my own photographs and perhaps construct images that use this as a means of communication. However, this is potentially something that will be more prevalent during the editing stage of the project.

Countercurrent Podcast

This week, I also listened to an episode of Countercurrent podcast featuring Anthony Luvera discussing his approach to socially engaged photography (Levera, 2020). The subject of representation came up during the discussion and the power balance that exists between the artist and the subject of their art. Traditionally, there have been a number of incidences throughout the history of photography where a particular group or culture has been photographed in a particular way and has led to tropes which has a knock on impact of effecting the way they are represented and even the conversation, political, and societal decisions are affected by these representations. Although not referred to in the podcast, this reminds me of the work that Patrick Waterhouse did when working with the Walpiri of the Northern Territory in Australia (Fig. 2), which was a way of considering, not only the colonial gaze, but also the way anthropological photography was used as a method of reducing the value of cultures other than the white European (Waterhouse, 2019). 

Figure 2. Patrick Waterhouse (2019) From the book ‘Restricted Images’ by Patrick Waterhouse and the Walpiri

Levera does not believe that the problematic photographic representation can easily be solved and that no photograph is neutral, however we can aim to redress the balance through collaborative practice (2020).

It was also noted that a tension exists between the artist and the subject when any kind of process of working together exists and when circulating this work to audiences.

Index and the Icon

How I use these within my own work has been useful to consider. I believe for the most part my photography uses the iconic, I photograph things that look like what they are supposed to, for the most part.

I consider how this has changed in the present short term (assuming that I continue to focus on the iconic in my work) from the commercial practice, where I would use elements such as photo-blur to get around such things as model releases for people on the street. This also had the added aesthetic quality of creating an atmosphere of a busy urban area. The work that I have been creating for the last module concentrates on what is in front of me, what exists in the real world. Context is a driver of how we can present the icon and the indexical, during the seminar the example of wedding photography was given in that the audience of this work expects to see a certain image of the posed groups. This reminds me of the work of commercial photographer John Keatley who has become well known for how he plays with the notion of the family portrait (Fig. 3), and has even taken it to the extreme of getting actors to pose in the images as him and his wife – although his children are the same (Keatley, 2018). This really plays with the icon and the indexical. Keatley us subverting the shared vocabulary of what we expect to see from a family portrait, an image of the family. However by removing himself from the image he has still created something that exists in the real world, the photograph is of something that exists, it is not a photograph of Keatley, even though he has titled it as such. Keatley has taken the image, could this be considered a trace? There is no truth to this image and the actors that are portraying the artist are arbitrary, however Keatley has had a tangible connection to the construction of the image.

Figure 3. John Keatley (2018) Keatley Family Portrait

A photograph is not nuanced in all things that are based in the real world the way that photography is portrayed, It cannot portray all of the subtle variety that exists, it is a blunt snapshot in time of something that existed – A fossil, which is indexical to the thing that existed. What this week has prompted me to look at more is how the environment of community which has now become my focus might be comprised of indexical elements that I could photograph as part of the work. What are the traces of the community that I am photographing over the wandering and photographing anything of interest. Having a clear intention for why I have photographed and included them within a final edit was always one of my aims


Barthes, R., 1977. Death of the Author. In: Image, Music, Text. New York: Fontana, pp. 142-149.

Berger, J., 2013. Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin Classics.

Kander, N., 2019. Prix Pictet: A Lens on Sustainability. Photography as Witness [Interview] (5 November 2019).

Keatley, J., 2018. Keatley Family 2018. [Online] Available at: https://www.keatleyphoto.com/portraits/keatley-family/ [Accessed 6 February 2020].

Luvera, A., 2020. Countercurrent Podcast: Anthony Luvera in conversation with Roger Kneebone [Interview] (13 January 2020).

Snyder, J. & Allen, N. W., 1975. Photography, Vision, and Representation. Critical Enquiry, 2(1), pp. 143-169.

Sontag, S., 1979. On Photography. London: Penguin.

Waterhouse, P., 2019. Restricted Images by Patrick Waterhouse and the Walpiri. 1st ed. London: SPBH Editions.

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