How we see photographs

In her introduction, Liz Wells (2003, p.1 ) raises the question 'What is a photograph?' And continues by defining the photograph as "...a particular sort of image, one which operates through freezing a moment in time..." 

This ability to dislocate time and space enables the photograph to be used in a variety of contexts. Photographers, curators, critics and relatives will read a photograph in a way that suits their concerns. The scene captured in a photograph could be interpreted as a memory, a document or a piece of art. 

Many photography books begin with this attempt to translate what a photograph is and yet the majority of people who take photographs know the reason why they take them. Photography fulfils their own need.

However photography finds itself questioning its own purpose and intention. The history of what photography is, is almost as long and complex as the history of photography itself. Following on from this Wells (2003) raises the notion of 'histories' of photography rather than a single timeline of events and development of ideas. This medium is so complex and diverse that it is impossible to begin to interpret it linearly. 

The context of how we view photographs will also determine how we see photographs. Whilst Wells (2003) considers how an image could be interpreted differently on a gallery wall as opposed to a magazine, she writes at a time before the upsurge of social networking. Facebookers upload photos to be shared and tagged, to communicate to their friends. Meanwhile, Apps like Timehop unearth and re-post old photographs on social networks, for the sake of nostalgia. To re-view images beyond the moment and audience they were intended for can arguably alter their interpretation. Subsequently, the reason for taking photographs alters. Photographs become pauses, reminders, in a fast-paced world. 


Wells, L. (2003) The Photography Reader. Routledge: London