Knowledge and Photography

Do you need prior knowledge to understand a photograph? Or does a photograph gives you knowledge of a certain topic?

This question arose when I was listening to Roger Ballen‘s talk while he was here in Hong Kong. He mentioned a few things that I found myself pondering.

  1. Would you know these people are the outcasts in the book “Outland” if I didn’t tell you about the history of South Africa at that time? Would you be able to relate to the significance of this book to that period of time?
  2. Many have said, when you look at my photographs you feel disturbed or fearful of some sort, actually, people in South Africa laughed when they saw my photographs. They say “Mr. Ballen, your work is funny!” When they have been surrounded by this sort of environment daily, would the photographs have the same impact as you who are sitting here?

Then for the Meteor reading club, I was studying the work by Abbas “God I’ve seen” and Cristina Garcia Rodero’s España oculta and her other work.

With the background knowledge I have on Hinduism, I could easily relate the work by Abbas from this book. It shares the idea of diversity and the different aspects that are important relating to Hinduism. But without such prior knowledge, do the photos speak of what Hinduism is about? Could the people who have no former understanding of Hinduism understand better what the photograph says about Hinduism?

On the other hand, I had no knowledge of Voodoos and very little about Christianity. The photographs spoke to me in forms of different emotions that arise within those religion. The ways the images were captured gave me some new knowledge or ideas about voodoos in Haiti, and the beliefs they have in Spain. Then I wondered, if I had some prior knowledge about these religion, would the photographs have the same impact? And would I be able to understand better those photographs?

I’m not sure.

But what happened was, the work by Cristina drove me to research more about Voodoos and Christianity. The photographs inspired me to want to learn more about those religions. I also researched about Hinduism for a very different reason in that I wanted to know whether the work by Abbas could be understood much better with the knowledge of the religion itself.

And after all what I can conclude is: Do the photographs inspire you? Meaning – do you feel anything when looking at the photographs?


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