The photograph has become a ubiquitous element of our culture and society, informing and influencing how we perceive and react to our environment. We have become accustomed to understanding our surroundings, fellow humans, and world events in terms of photographic images. However, despite the pervasive nature of these images, we often overlook (or fail to recognise) the challenges we face in interpreting them. In the opening chapter of Susan Sontag’s seminal work On Photography (1979, pp.3-26), the nature of viewing photographs is described with parallels to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave; this would seem a fitting analogy, as a photograph can never be anything more than a representation of the real, subjective in the nature of its production.
As the prisoners in Plato’s cave were unable to distinguish between shadows and reality, we in the 21st century still struggle to recognise the factors which influence, refine, and distort our interpretations of photographic images. We imagine that the act of looking at photographs is a straightforward and unidirectional process, but when presented with charged or taboo subject matter, the subjective interpretation of what a photograph represents enters a grey area, and our usual intellectual toolkit for understanding images becomes unreliable.
In this essay I intend to illustrate the problems that we are faced with when interpreting images, first by revisiting general theories of seeing and interpreting, and then via the exploration of two problematic fields: the perception and representation of the sexualised female subject, and the nature of the intolerable image.