Uses of Photography


Berger, John. ‘Uses of Photography’ About Looking (London: Bloomsbury, 2009) 52-67

[An essay for Susan Sontag, in reponse to On Photography]

The speed with which the possible uses of photography were seized upon is surely an indication of photography’s profound, central applicability to industrial capitalism.

It was not, however until the 20th century and the period between the two world wars that the photograph became the dominant and most “natural” way of referring to appearances. It was then that it replaced the world as immediate testimony.

It was the period when photography was thought of as being most transparent, offering direct access to the real: the period of the great witnessing masters of the medium like Paul Strand and Walker Evans.

It was in the capitalist countries, the freest moment of photography: it had been liberated from the limitations of fine art, and it had become a public medium which could be used democratically.


Yet the moment was brief. The very “truthfulness” of the new medium encouraged its deliberate use as a means of propaganda. The Nazis were among the first to use systematic photogrpahic propaganda.


In the first period of its existence photography […] was an implement. Now, instead of offering new choices, its usage and its “reading” were becoming habitual, an unexamined part of modern perception itself.

The invention of the lightweight camera [caused] the taking of a photograph [cease] to be a ritual and became a “reflex”.


What served in place of the photograph; before the camera’s invention? The expected answer is the engraving, the drawing, the painting. The more revealing answer might be: memory. What photographs do out there in space was previously done within reflection.

Unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it. No painting or drawing, however naturalist, belongs to its subject in the way that a photograph does.

What the camera does, however, and what the eye in itself can never do, is to fix the appearance of that event. It removes its appearance from the flow of appearances and it preserves it, not perhaps forever but for as long as the film exists.


The camera saves a set of appearances from the otherwise inevitable supercession of further appearances. It holds them unchanging. And before the invention of the camera nothing could do this, except, in the mind’s eye, the faculty of memory.

Yet, unlike memory, photographs do not in themselves preserve meaning. They offer appearances – with all the credibility and gravity we normally lend to appearances – prised away from their meaning.

Photographs in themselves do not narrate.

Compare the exposure time for a film with the life of the print made, and let us assume that the print only lasts ten years: the ratio for an average modern photograph would be approximately 20,000,000,000: 1. Perhaps that can serve as a reminder of the violence of the fission whereby appearances are seperated from the camera from their function.

The private photograph […] is appreciated and read in a context which is continuous with that from which the camera removed it.


A mechanical device, the camera has been used as an instrument to contribute to a living memory. The photograph is a momento from a life being lived.

The contemporary public photograph usually presents an event, a seized set of appearances, which has nothing to do with us, its readers, or with the original meaning of the event. It offers information, but information severed from all lived experience


It is because the photographs carry no certain meaning in themselves, because they are like images in the memory of a total stranger, that they lend themselves to any use.

Has the camera replaced the eye of God? The decline of religion corresponds with the rise of the photograph. Has the culture of capitalism telescoped God into photography?


Memory implies a certain act of redemption. What is remembered has been saved from nothingness. What is forgotten has been abandoned.

If all events are seen, instantaneously, outside time, by a supernatural eye, the distinction between remembering and forgetting is transformed into an act of judgement, into the rendering of justice, whereby recognition is close to being remembered, and condemnation is close to being forgotten.

At first, the secularisation of the capitalist world during the 19th century elided the judgement of God into the judgement of History in the name of Progress. Democracy and Science became the agents of such a judgement.. And for a brief moment, photography, as we have seen, was considered to be an aid to these agents. It is still to the historical moment that photography owes its ethical reputation as Truth.

During the second half of the twentieth century the judgement of history has been abandoned by all except the under-privileged and dispossessed. The industrialised, “developed” world, terrified of the past, blind to the future, lives within an opportunism which has emptied the principle of justice of all credibility.


Such opportunism turns everything – nature, history, suffering, other people, catastrophes, sport, sex, politics – into spectavle. And the implement used to do this – until the act becomes so habitual that the conditioned imagination may do it alone – is the camera.


The spectacle creates an eternal present of immediate expectation: memory ceases to be necessary or desirable. With the loss of memory the continuities of meaning and judgement are also lost to us. The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.


Is there an alternative photographic practice?

Today no alternative professional practice (if one thinks of the profession of photographer) is possible. the system can accommodate any photograph. Yet it may be possible to begin to use photographs according to a practice addressed to an alternative future. This future is a hope which we need now, if we are to maintain a struggle, a resistance, against the societies and culture of capitalism.

In the private use of photography, the context of the instant recorded is preserved so that the photograph lives on in an ongoing continuity.

The public photograph, by contrast, is torn from its context, and becomes a dead object which, exactly because it is dead, lends itself to any arbitrary use.


Photographs are relics of the past, traces of what has happened. If the living take that past upon themselves, if the past becomes an integral part of the process of people making their own history, then all photographs would reacquire a living context, they would continue to exist in time, instead of being arrested moments.

It is just possible that photography is the prophecy of a human memory yet to be socially and politically achieved. Such a memory could encompass any image of the past, however tragic, however guilty, within its own continuity. The distinction between the private and public uses of photography would be transcended.


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.

The task will determine both the kinds of pictures taken and the way they are used. There can of course be no formulae, no prescribed practice. yet in recognising how photography has come to be used by capitalism, we can define at least some of the principles of an alternative practice.

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.


What makes these photographs so tragic and extraordinary is that, looking at them, one is convinced that they were not taken to please generals, to boost the morale of a civilian public, to glorify heroic soldiers or to shock the world press: they were images addressed to those suffering what they depict.

The alternative use of photographs which already exist leads us back once more to the phenomenon and faculty of memory. The aim must be to construct a context for a photograph, to construct it with word, to construct it with other photographs, to construct it by its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images.

Normally photographs are used in a very unilinear way – they are used to illustrate an argument, or to demonstrate a thought which goes like this:


Memory is not unilinear at all. Memory works radially, that is to say with an enormous number of associations all leading to the same event.

\       |       /
\     |     /
– – – – – –   +   – – – – – –
/     |     \
/       |       \


If we want to put a photograph back into the context of experience, social experience, social memory, we have to respect the laws of memory. We have to situate the printed photograph so that it acquires something of the surprising conclusiveness of that which was and is.

[Berger cites Brecht, and applying his thoughts on acting to photography]


Such a context replaces the photograph in time – not its own original time for that is impossible – but in narrated time. Narrated time becomes historic time when it is assumed by social memory and social action. The constructed narrated time needs to respect the process of memory which is hopes to stimulate.


There is never a single approach to something remembered. The remembered is not like a terminus at the end of a line. Numerous approaches or stimuli converge upon it and lead to it.


A radial system has to constructed around the photograph so that is may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.

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