Hypothesis – Every photograph taken is contingent on the unconscious of the photographer. Every photograph viewed is contingent on the unconscious of the viewer. Interesting photographs are created when there is a meaningful dialogue between the unconscious of the photographer and the unconscious of the viewer through the medium of the photograph.
I include the literature review below to provide academic evidence to back up my proposal that the unconscious does all the work that leads to the production of a photograph. Personally I do not believe in free will but live my life as if I have it. The expression for this is compatibilism. What I learnt from my Psychology Masters in Cognitive and Decision Sciences at UCL in 2010 is that with the current state of knowledge I can’t prove beyond doubt I am right and equally nobody can prove beyond doubt I am wrong. We each need to weigh the evidence we see and form a view.
Spinoza (1677) in The Ethics said ‘Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free: their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined. Their idea of freedom, therefore, is simply their ignorance of any cause for their actions.’
More recently Marvin Minsky (1985) put it ‘None of us enjoys the thought that what we do depends on processes we do not know; we prefer to attribute to our choices volition, will or self control ……Perhaps it would be more honest to say ‘My decision was determined by internal forces I do not understand.’
Benjamin (1931) states ‘Photography…with its time lapses, enlargements etc…through these methods one first learns of this optical unconscious, just as one learns of the unconscious through psychoanalysis. Concern with structure, cell forms, the improvement of medicine through these techniques: the camera is more closely related to these than to the moody landscape or the soulful portrait.’
Kofman writes ‘Freud’s use of the model of the photographic apparatus is intended to show that all psychic phenomena necessarily pass first through an unconscious phase….before acceding to consciousness.’ She goes on to quote directly from Freud ‘Let us therefore compare the system of the unconscious to a large entrance hall, in which the mental impulses jostle one another like separate individuals. Adjoining this entrance hall is a second narrower room – a kind of drawing room -in which consciousness, too resides. But on the threshold between these two rooms a watchman performs his function: he examines the different mental impulses, acts as censor, and will not admit them in to the drawing room if they displease him……The impulses in the entrance hall of the unconscious are out of sight of the conscious, which is in the other room; to begin with they must remain unconscious.’ Further ‘when there is a passage in to consciousness, it depends not on logical criteria, but on a selection involving conflicts between nondialectizable forces.’
Benjamin offers us the optical unconscious and Freud can support the idea that the photograph is ‘decided’ in the unconscious. Paul Strand said that ‘Your photography is a record of your living, and today, we might add, of your unconscious mind too. “(Adams and Byrne 1994: 119)
More recently work by Libet (1999) demonstrated that decisions apparently taken in our conscious mind had already been taken by the unconscious parts of the brain hundreds of milliseconds earlier than the conscious decision. Similarly Wegner (2002) writes of the ‘illusion of free will’ to further reinforce the idea that all decisions are taken in the unconscious mind.
My own teacher Professor Nick Chater at UCL put it well in his first lecture with us when he said ‘everything I am teaching you could be wrong. That is the state of our knowledge at the moment. My job is to find ways of backing up what I say and to tell you what we currently know.’ In his book The Mind is Flat he states ‘our mental depths are a confabulation – a fiction created in the moment in our own brain. There are no pre-formed beliefs, desires, preferences, attitudes, even memories, hidden in the deep recesses of our mind; indeed, the mind has no deep recesses in which anything can hide The mind is flat: the surface is all there is.’ Chater (2018). In his book he also argues we have as much chance explaining our own decisions as we would attempting to explain why Anna Karenina throws herself in front of a train at the end of Tolstoy’s masterpiece.
I must now proceed with the photography project for my investigations but felt I needed to demonstrate I have given the psychological aspects of my hypothesis some serious consideration.
ADAMS, Robert and Wendy BYRNE. 1994. Why People Photograph : Selected Essays and Reviews. 1st edn. New York: Aperture.
BENJAMIN, Walter. 1931. A Short History of Photography. Literische Welt, 1931. Reprinted from Artforum (Feb, 1977). Vol 15.
CHATER, Nick. 2018. The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind. Penguin. Random House. UK.
KOFMAN, Sarah. FREUD. The Photographic Apparatus – The photographer’s antechamber. In Photography and the Optical Unconscious (2017). Duke University Press
LIBET, Benjamin. 1999. Do We Have Free Will? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, No. 8-9, pp.47-57
MINSKY, M. 1985. The Society of Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.
SPINOZA, B. 1677 The Ethics. trans.R.H.M.Elwes. London:Dover 1883.
WEGNER, Daniel, M. 2002. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge Massechusetts: Bradford Books. MIT Press.