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做研究,社會科學家,包括地裡學家,常用照片當作是主要的文獻資料之一;然而,社會科學不只把照片當作事件表象的證據,如何透過批判的觀點解讀照片的內容,了解影像背後的訊息,更是社會科學所關照的.在BC教授"Learning to Do Historical Research“的網頁裡,肉圓邑提供了幾個解讀照片內容的小訣竅.

Pay Attention to Content


The Tetons and the Snake River by Ansel Adams Image source: Wikipedia entry: Ansel Adams

Notice the viewing perspective

Different perspectives used by photographers not only relate to artistic purpose, but also to the different relationships between the objects in the photo and the viewers. Take vantage-point perspective as an example. A vantage-point location could be a high place, a hill, or the top of a tower. Such a vantage-point perspective disengages the viewers physically from the objects viewed to create a panorama.

Look at the famous photo, The Tetons and the Snake River, taken in 1942 by the renowned photographer Ansel Adams. The vantage-point perspective produces an aesthetically stunning image of the landscape. At the same time, it distances the viewers from the trees, rivers, and mountains to create a birds-eye view of the landscape. This view could therefore enhance the connection between humans and wild places, or it could lead to a sense of human domination over nature.

Look into what is seen, and think about what is not seen

Remember that the content of a photograph only contains partial stories regarding a place or an event. Within a picture’s frame, photographers cannot include all elements they witness. However, this constraint also means that photographers are privileged to select, frame, and compose what is seen. In other words, in order to critically analyze photos, always think about the resulting significance about what appears and what is missing in the content.

Again, take a look at Ansel Adams’ photo, The Tetons and the Snake River. The photo only contains elements commonly categorized as nature, be they snow peaks, the winding river, or the lush forests. Accordingly, the landscape in the photo may imply that the Tetons are wilderness with pure and uncontaminated nature, away from any human disturbance. As a result, this framed image of pure nature could neglect the relationship between the landscape and existing human cultures around the Tetons. Consider the way it may thus reinforce the imagination of wilderness prevalent in American culture.

Carefully read any text describing the image

Notice that the content of photos often includes attached text describing an image. Such information is important not only because it denotes the photographer’s motivation for taking the photo, but also because it, explicitly or implicitly, often discloses the social values or ideologies embedded in the image. The text could be directly written by the photographer, by the institutions that use the image for their purposes, by critics of different social backgrounds, etc.

The photo The Tetons and the Snake River may exemplify Ansel Adams’ words in his 1983 autobiography: “I know that I am one with beauty and that my comrades are one. Let our souls be mountains. Let our spirits be stars. Let our hearts be worlds.” These words, combined with the image, help you become familiar with the photographer’s philosophy concerning human-environment relations. Here, investigating related texts is essential to help understand how photos have become a powerful influence on the history of environmental protection.

Consider Who Took or Made the Image

Get information about who made the image

Knowing the background of the photographer or the institution producing the photo is a critical step in interpreting the motivation behind making the image. Ansel Adams, again, is a good example. If you only know him as a landscape photographer, you probably appreciate his works from the viewpoint of his artistic achievement. Nevertheless, if you realize that Adams was also an environmentalist who used his photos to express his belief in preserving nature, the way you approach his works could be reoriented to an inquiry into the relations between images and the development of environmental protection in the United States.

Historical context matters! Always think about when the image was produced

You will risk misinterpreting a photo if you don’t pay attention to the context when the image was produced. If you look into Adams’ photos without situating his works in the context of American society, you may interpret his photos only from the perspective of how he was inspired by nature. On the other hand, if you contextualize his early works in his formative years of the 1930s, you can realize critical stories behind the photos.

Many 1930s American photographers took their photos out of a sense of obligation to reveal the harsh times of the Great Depression. Critics call it the “art for life’s sake” movement. Knowing this historical context, you may realize that the motives behind Adams’ “natural” photos produced in the 1930s were different from the motives of this movement. You could therefore try to gain insights into how Adams’ early works shifted focus away from the “art for life’s sake” movement and were instead deployed in the cause of wilderness preservation.

Think about How People Interpret and Use Images

Keep America Beautiful’s famous 1971 Ad Campaign, featuring Iron Eyes Cody, the “Crying Indian"
Image source: Wikipedia entry: Keep America Beautiful

Examine how the image is read among different social groups

How viewers interpret a photo is not always consistent with the original purpose or intention of its producer. Moreover, the same photo can be read and interpreted in different ways by different social groups. These differences can be critical for understanding different positions concerning a specific environmental issue. Take the famous 1971 “Crying Indian” image above as an example. Although it was used to promote environmental concerns, social groups approached the image differently.

The environmental organization that produced the image of the Crying Indian used it for a campaign criticizing industrial pollution and promoting environmental protection. Many American Indians used the image to articulate their identity, emphasizing the harmonious relation between Indian cultures and nature. Thus, the example of the Crying Indian could help you understand how different social groups approach an image. It demonstrates how Indian cultures have been appropriated by environmental organizations to reinforce tensions between nature and the modern industrial world. It also suggests how American Indians positioned themselves in these tensions.

Think about how the image is used in different social contexts

Not only is it important to ask how an image is used among different social groups, it is also important to ask how the same image is packaged and interpreted in different social contexts. One thing to notice is that people’s interpretations of a photo are not fixed based on a pre-assigned categorization of different social groups. You should not assume American Indians, for example, are a unanimous entity that always understands an image in the same way. Rather, within any specific social group, like American Indians, the meanings of an image change depending on when, where, and by whom they are viewed.

Again, look at the image of the Crying Indian above. Iron Eyes Cody, the Crying Indian, is actually Sicilian, not American Indian. In 1996, his Sicilian heritage was reported by the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Consider how this may change the meaning of the image and convey the politics of identity implicated in the environmental movement.

Finally, while many American Indians embrace the narrative of “the ecological Indian” associated with the iconic image, some Indians may be concerned more about the condescending stereotype of “the noble savage” implied by the image. In other words, to understand how the meanings of the Crying Indian image change in different scenarios, you could pay attention to when, where, and why the different meanings—be they the ecological Indian or the noble savage—have been purposefully highlighted.

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