I have written briefly about photography and belief (Fig: 1) in relation to David Levi-Strauss’ essay (2020). My project is also exploring the subject of belief, so it is important to take some time to reflect on what this means and how it can be represented in the project. Neuroscientist Hannah Critchlow considers this in her book ‘The Science of Fate’ (2021) which looks at a range of scientific studies related to ideas of belief and perception and crosses over very well into my own explorations as well as the philosophical debate within and out of photography on the ways in which we construct our realities.
Figure 1: Phil Hill (June, 2021) Writing on belief in photography.
I am interested in the reasons why people chose to believe. In some cases, and most relevant during this pandemic, why a person might choose to believe something that runs contrary to the overwhelming evidence that exists (Fig: 2). Critchlow refers to our brains as being a kind of “belief engine” (2021, p. 131), which will seek out supporting information for belief and ignore anything that appears to contradict this view point. Critchlow suggests that once the belief has been established, then it becomes increasingly difficult to change that mindset, as she notes: “And, given the scale of the brain’s eagerness to assign casual meaning to casual events, it’s easy to see how quickly one could arrive at an erroneous conclusion […] from essentially random occurrences” (p. 137). For example, my families own experience of being working class can feel that the system is stacked against you and by extension that authority and the state is also complicit in this – leading to a mistrust of any kind of authority, and a withdrawal. It is not too difficult to understand a leap from that, to a position that considers the pandemic some kind of extension of this, however misinformed that might be.
Critchlow discusses the way that we form belief, which is based on how we construct the world from our experiences, as she notes: “there is no such thing as objective reality” (p. 110). This of course connects to the discussion around photography, for example Susan Sontag’s Opening chapter to ‘On Photography,’ highlighting Plato’s allegory of the cave as a primary way that photography reconstitutes reality, but also the differences between knowledge and belief (1979, pp. 3-26). Photography is unable to present reality, because we are also flawed in presenting reality, as Critchlow states: “I don’t men to suggest that the physical world does not exist, rather that every person on this planet perceives it in a slightly different way. Everyone is living in their own ‘bespoke’ reality” (2021, p. 111). Critchlow’s arguments also seem to suggest links to Graham Harmon’s Object Orientated Ontology (2018), as it seeks to push the de-privileging of human interpretation as the primary factor for understanding the world.
An important takeaway from Critchlow is the way that belief is entrenched, potentially never able to come around to a different point of view. It is how we are able to make sense of the world and each of our brains are hard pressed to give that up: “Future reality starts to mould itself around the belief” (Critchlow, 2021, p. 137). Philosophically, the idea that reality is constructed has only been reinforced on a neurological level and crucially points out that: “our brains are invested in maintaining rather than changing our beliefs” (p. 138).
What is the impact that this has on my project? I am not aiming to change the opinion, or belief of anyone in my family. This would be quite an unethical position in terms of the power structure of me as the photographer. By the same token I am not a passive observer here, this is my family and the interactions that I have with them are always going to be very different to anyone else. I do not hold the same beliefs as my family so part of the project is to put this as one of the central focus of the sequence of the work. We all have a unique interpretation of the world, some of this might be misinformed and misguided, but ultimately who is truly able to make accurate judgement of the world when we are all flawed in the way that Critchlow suggests.
Critchlow, H., 2021. The Science of Fate. 1 ed. London: Hodder Paperbacks.
Harmon, G., 2018. Object Orientated Ontology – A New Theory of Everything. 1st ed. London: Pelican Books.
Levi Strauss, D., 2020. Photography and Belief. 1 ed. New York: David Zwirner Books.
Sontag, S., 1979. On Photography. London: Penguin.