Photographic Initiatives: The Initiative of the Photographer


Van Lier, Henri. Philosophy of Photography, Lieven Gevaert Series, 6, New ed. (Leuven: Univ. Press, 2007)

Part Two: Photographic Initiatives: 4. The Initiative of the Photographer: Trap and Switch Mediumism, pp.71-74


Photographs, even of psychological or social situations, are obtained through the automatic application of objectives, films, developers, and fixatives; they frequently offer interesting or even important results, while texts or aleatory paintings hardly ever do. Still there are those effects that can only be obtained through the intervention of a human agent, the photographer. Both optional and last, and yet miraculous, the photographer undoubtedly has a status even more difficult to define that that of the photographs he makes, or, to be more precise, he helps to make.

Like the sexual act, the photographic activity has its stage of arousal, a stagnant phase, a phase of quasi vegetative triggering, followed by he various stages of pregnancy in the darkroom with its techniques of burning and dodging, cutouts and re-centerings, and various layouts before reaching a resolution in simple or multiple deliveries.

In this metaphor, the moment of the shot is the orgasmic instant.


Cartier-Bresson speaks of his tiptoeing in order to find the most intense angle and what he himself dubbed ‘the decisive moment’. He compares the release of the shutter to a fencer making a lunge.

What is essential to the role of the photographer is vision, photographic vision.

One has concluded too rashly that the photographer as shot-taker is a ‘hunter of images’. The word conjures up loading, to aim, fire, and capture; to take, shoot and snap. However the camera is certainly not a revolver, despite the sound of the shutter and the phallic protuberance exploited in publicity. Neither is it, to keep with the sexual imagery, a suction pump.

The camera is rather a trap that must lead its prey into getting caught. The photographer as shot-taker resembles the hunter-trapper. The trapper is as passive as he is active. For the animal to enter man’s scheme, man must take in beforehand the animal’s behavior.


 The word trapper is used by North American Indians and indicates precisely the complicity between the hunter and his prey as the uttermost brotherhood.


The classic trope of the proximity between photography and sexuality is evocative only if one keeps in mind the idea of a reciprocal rhythmic coaptation.

In addition, the metaphor of the trap also indicates that the photographer remains on the outside. The trapper is satisfied with connecting the trap with the prey. The photographer as shot-taker connects the spectacle of the camera obscura. He never sees exactly as the film ‘sees’.

If the viewfinder is distinct from the lens, the eye sees simultaneously with the camera, but from another point of view. If we are dealing with a reflex camera, the eye sees from the same place as the camera, but at another moment, i.e. prior to it.

What strange type of hunter-trapper is this who does not even catch his prey but merely its traces? And what to think of ‘game’ consisting of wild rabbits, the curves of a lover’s smile and Orion’s nebula?


If it is true that even a highly indexed and indicial photograph contains fragments of reality against the frame of the real, then every photograph is mediumistic. Innocently or not, both the photographer as developer, printer and the one responsible for the layout, and especially the photographer as the taker of shots are mediums – mediums between reality and the real.

Here, the English language can help us, as medium applies at the same time to the object as to the subject, to the photograph and the photographer at the moment of capture, so that both are not quite separable. Furthermore, in its meaning of intermediate, the word medium brings out that, for the photo as well as for the photographer, we are not dealing with mediation or dialectic, which are unifications proper to signs, nut only with go-betweens, like the interventions of stockbrokers – suited to overlapping centripetal and centrifugal indices – for the most substantial activation of mental schemas.

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