05. Frame of Reference

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Blue's Brothers

Did you ever wonder why a shot of which you were particularly proud didn’t seem to “click” with other people. Assuming that it is not simply a badly taken image, one possible reason for its failure could be a disjoint in frames of reference.

Regardless of whether we are the authors of an image or are simply viewers of one created by someone else, we all view it within our individual frame of reference as defined by our particular experience, knowledge, fears, hopes and motivational drivers. Thus, each image, when viewed, sacrifices its universality and becomes a strand of our personal experience whose significance to us will be determined by the connections it makes with the existing elements of our frame of reference and their relative importance to us.

To put it another way, if the viewer can “identify” with the image through an experience, the memory of which is triggered by the image, it is more likely that the image will be understood and therefore viewed favourably. And the more significant the experience is to the viewer, the more favourably the image triggering it is likely to be viewed. Strangely enough, this appears to be true, even if the experience triggered was an unpleasant one. The fact that someone else has shared or at least understood that experience is regarded as a positive force: the notion that “a burden shared is a burden halved”.

On the other hand, when the experience depicted by the image is not clear, or the link between the image and the experience is extremely tenuous, the viewer may not make the connection and the significance of the image will be lost.

Take my picture of the two boys silhouetted against the blue sky, for example. This image has profound significance for me but the reaction to it on Flickr clearly suggests that I failed to communicate that significance to others. At the time of writing, only 131 people had viewed the image, only 46 of those had commented on it and only 16 people thought well enough of it to call it a favourite. Of those who commented, the clear majority confined their comments to the visual aspects: the quality of the silhouettes. A few dug deeper when they remarked on the communication between the two boys; but no one went so far as to express the idea that I had when I took the shot, the reason being that the image itself provided insufficient information.

The key to deciphering this image lies in the fact that I was an “only” child. As I watched these two boys my mind immediately began to speculate on what my own “growing up” experience might have been and what it might have lead to in terms of who I am now if I had had an older or younger brother. The body language of the boys clearly defined the relationship between them, one dominant and the other sub-dominant. So I set myself the task of capturing that relationship in a photograph; the older brother proudly strutting his stuff with the younger trying to win his approval. I reduced them to silhouette because I did not want to depict these boys in particular. I wanted them to anonymously represent all brothers, to be the epitome of brothers growing up together.

Unfortunately, in this case, the link between the image and the experience I was trying to represent was too tenuous, too far removed for viewers to make the connection. And on Flickr, with so many images to view, people do not have the time to dwell on images that don’t make the connection instantly. At this moment, I still do not know what I could have done differently to make this image resonate with viewers more effectively. But that is because the image still resonates powerfully with me in my personal frame of reference.

So why am I writing this? Partly, it is to help myself understand why this image of mine failed to capture the interest of Flickr viewers as I had expected it to. But more importantly, it is to share that understanding so that others might avoid the mistake that I made. When I look at the picture of the two brothers, I see in their posture, their gestures, their anonymity and universality, all that I missed growing up as an only child. When I look at the picture of the young man on the dockside (below), I see an expression of how it feels when expectation dissolves into disappointment.

But the more important question is: what do you see?

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The Unbearable Darkness of Being

2 thoughts on “05. Frame of Reference

  1. You pose some very interesting questions. I think that the struggles you are speaking of have much to do with the gap that exists between the artist’s idea and the viewer who tries to connect with it. Images do speak words, but those words are inevitably bound to the perspective of the viewer– and not necessarily to the person that created them.

    After reading your words above, I now see your image in an entirely different light, which leads me to suggest that, perhaps, including a few carefully chosen words might go a long way to help those who view your images to connect on the level that you are hoping to express.

    • You’re absolutely right. Ideally, an image can speak for itself, without the need for explanatory text; but there will always be times, and I think you are correct in saying that this is one of those times, that it is necessary to provide context to give the image meaning. The challenge for the photographer lies in detaching him or herself from the image sufficiently to be able to make a judgement on whether context is necessary (for others).

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