One of the most arresting photographic forms is that which records episodes of human conflict—whether the act itself or the aftermath. How do we read them? Why do we seem to respond to some pictures to the extent that we call them “secular icons” in marked preference to others? Is it even legitimate to view some photographs as “secular icons”?
There is a strain within photography criticism that exhibits distrust over whether photojournalistic images can contain any meaning beyond its status as an instantaneous record. Susan Sontag claimed that photographs “give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal” and moreover that photography of conflict can amount to “war pornography.” It cannot provide context, as another critic points out: “photographs do not explain the way the world works; they do not offer reasons or cause; they do not tell us stories with a coherent, or even discernible, beginning, middle, and end.”
There is truth to these statements. Yet some photographs seem to possess a status greater than that of being a mere record of a fraction of a second in a specific location. In short, they seem symbolic. Such photographs produce a range of responses from audiences: sympathy, outrage, antagonism, and more. Hariman and Lucaites call such examples “iconic.” They define the iconic photograph as an aesthetically conventional image featuring recognizable subject matter, framed in such a way as to emphasize conflicts within the society in which it was produced. Simple in composition, the iconic photograph nevertheless provides fertile ground for multiple interpretations.
Whereas Sontag saw photography as providing an untrue past, Hariman and Lucaites instead see the photograph as producing our collective memory of the past: that they are instances of making sense, or interpreting, important events. For them, iconic photographs form the starting-point of a dialogue with audiences and artists, who reproduce, re-use, and re-situate them in different contexts: they provide a vocabulary of symbolic materials.
However, this vocabulary does not arise ex nihilo. Photography is not isolated from the prior history of image making. Indeed, photographs are rarely taken in any form of isolation at all, photographers often taking dozens or hundreds of pictures at a given event. In this pile of imagery, one or two are recognized as being superior to the others. The question, of course, is what is it about the photograph that suggests it speak volumes?
In the long history of Western image making, many have suggested that image-makers create, and audiences interpret, images along the lines of similar things they have seen before. Broadened to photography, we might state that photographers and editors gravitate towards instances that look like things they have seen before. Apollonius of Tyana discussed the “imitative faculty”: we project comprehensible interpretations onto imagery, such as clouds, because we try to use familiar items to parse the unfamiliar. One critic has stated succinctly that “every act of seeing is conditioned by our circumstances.” Those trained in the history of art are used to examining connections between images, taking it as axiomatic that pictures influence one another. Tracking meaningful connections in the history of art—be they gestural or thematic in nature—often falls under the rubric of iconography. In addition, while it is not a given that photographs echo past image-making patterns, or that viewers interpret photographs iconographically, the methodology provides a structure for investigating possible connections.