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Great Photos Can Make You See the World in a New Light

Great Photos Can Make You See the World in a New Light

Author: Reilly Capps/Sunday, March 24, 2013/Categories: photography

By Reilly Capps

It’s a Golden Age of photography. At least 10 percent of all photographs ever taken were taken last year. But a photograph is different from a good photograph.

A good photograph provokes one of two responses:

1. “What the ...? What the heck is going on here?”

2. “Oh! Now I see what’s going on here!”

Photos from the wires, collected by Time and the Boston Globe, repeatedly have that effect.

Foreign pictures, especially, provoke the first response.

Why are these women swinging sticks at that brightly colored man? Why are these men all dressed the same, sitting on a carpet, and writing? (And why do calm men writing on a carpet make me feel just a slight twinge of unease?)

With the Internet, the world can seem totally understood. But photos make you wonder whether the trillionth part has yet been seen. What’s the difference between good fires and bad, celebrations and catastrophes? Why are these soldiers, North Koreans, yelling? Can they possibly believe that their rifles, which look like BB guns, and their cannons, which look like WWII re-enactment props, and their leader, an international punchline, will stand up for a microsecond against South Korea? Do they think their propaganda is fooling anyone, since it’s so obviously totally staged? (North Koreans are only fooled by their absurd leader because they don’t have access to photographs from other parts of the world.) These photos are unintentionally revealing -- they were put out by the North Korean news agency, after all. They make a scary enemy seem like a paper tiger.

More domestic pictures of familiar subjects provoke the second response. An off-stage shot of a grinning Biden makes you wonder how closely he might actually be to The Onion’s caricature of him. A wide-angle photo of Air Force One in Tel Aviv reveals a long red carpet and attendants surrounding President Obama, and it makes a state visit look like the Golden Globes, with flashbulbs and fancy dresses, and makes you wonder how much of diplomacy is just an elaborate stage production (with Obama playing Brangelina). Meanwhile, another photo shows how the consequences of failed diplomacy are devastatingly real.

The philosopher Epictetus says that man was made to be a spectator to god and his works, and not just a spectator but an interpreter. Average photographers are spectators. Good photographers are interpreters. In the hands of good photographers, cameras don’t just capture color, light and shade; their exposures actually expose some truth; the shadows they capture throw the world into relief, in ways that reveal meaning, or sometimes create it.

We've created a space for good photographers to post their photos, the Slideshow Forum. Unlike Instagram and Facebook, photogs keep the rights to their photos. 


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