To photograph is to frame,” Susan Sontag once wrote, “and to frame is to exclude.” Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris made a similar point when he said, “You can never see the absence of something in a photograph….A photograph decontextulizes everything. You see this swatch of reality that has been torn out of the fabric of the world.” Sontag and Morris were each discussing photography in its portrayal of war and violence. Sontag complained that photography contributed to a “culture of spectatorship” by enabling viewers to take in the horrors of war at a safe distance, outside its original context. She noted that Roger Fenton – generally regarded as the first war photographer – was dispatched to the Crimea in 1855 by the British government with instructions not to take pictures of the dead or wounded. Since every photograph involves decisions as to how to frame the shot, when to release the shutter and how to crop the print, Morris has argued that all are essentially “posed.”

Photojournalists clearly have some obligation not to distort the truth by what they choose to include or exclude in their work. But it may be stretching the point to suggest that all photography is posed. The underlying assumption is that reality is unbounded and that we necessarily falsify it by putting a frame around it. Granted, a photographer must make many aesthetic and technical choices about what goes inside the frame, starting with where to point the camera. But, in my experience, these choices are driven by a desire to reproduce as faithfully as possible what the photographer seeks to portray.

It’s not as if reality as we perceive it exists in some pristine state that is somehow compromised by the artifice of photography. Nature already comes to us fully framed by fundamental concepts of time and space. We think they are attributes of the world around us. But they are learned, not innate. The world that greets the newborn is timeless, formless, meaningless – a “great blooming, buzzing confusion,” as the psychologist William James once characterized it. Only gradually do children learn to separate the thoughts and feelings “inside” themselves from the physical attributes of the realm “outside” themselves – in effect, putting a frame around the world.

I once had a photography teacher who insisted that we not crop our images. By this time I had already spent many years in corporate communications, where pictures were routinely cropped to fit layouts. When you think about it, there is no reason to expect that a particular subject you are shooting will automatically fit the proportions of your lens. Nevertheless, I followed instructions and found the no-cropping rule helpful in composing the image I was trying to capture. Your tendency is to focus on the center of the image, but you also need to pay attention to what appears in the corners.

A photographer knows better than anyone that a photograph is an artifact that must be considered on its own terms, rather than as a representation of reality. It is a product of the photographer’s collaboration with the world, not something torn from its fabric. There are certainly times when it is appropriate to ask what may lie outside the frame. But the frame’s purpose is not primarily to exclude; it is to call attention to what lies within. The world unframed by any thought, much less by a camera, is without form and void. Put a frame around it and you may yet wind up with a work of art.

Susan Sontag, On the Pain of Others
Errol Morris, Believing Is Seeing

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