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Question: Can you think of any photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication?

I find it difficult to think of any such photograph. All photographs communicate or express something, and even if this is ordinary and banal in the extreme it nevertheless communicates that some object (or objects) was present and its image captured.

This holds through even for the extreme example of a fixed security camera that for example takes a photograph of the same scene (say a doorway) once every sixty seconds. A review of the pictures from a set time period might show the same unaltered scene (assuming nobody had used the doorway) — photograph after identical photograph. Surely there is nothing to be communicated or express in these photographs? However, each photograph communicates an absence of anyone using the door way at a specific time. It’s conceivable also that given a particular context, photographs such as these could be used as a means of expression.

John Berger writes that ‘a photograph, while recording what has been seen, always and by its nature refers to what is not seen’ (Berger, 2013:20). He continues:

It [a photograph] isolates, preserves and presents a moment taken from a continuum. The power of a painting depends upon its internal references. Its reference to the natural world beyond the limits of the painted surface is never direct; it deals in equivalents. Or, to put it another way: painting interprets the world, translating it into its own language. But photography has no language of its own. One learns to read photographs as one learns to read footprints or cardiograms. The language in which photography deals is the language of events. All its references are external to itself. Hence the continuum (Berger, 2013:20).

Therefore it seems that all photographs must communicate or express something about the reality beyond the frame. In the next paragraph to the quoted text above, examples are given of the relation between what is present and what is absent, particular to each photograph:

It may be that of ice to sun, of grief to a tragedy, of a smile to a pleasure, of a body to love, of a winning race-horse to the race it has run (Berger, 2013:20).

In this scheme there cannot be, by definition, any photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication because all refer to, communicate about, express something about, some aspect of reality not shown in the photograph.


Berger, John (2013) ‘Understanding a Photograph’ In: Dyer (ed.) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin. pp. 17-21