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Photography, It’s Time You Stop Looking at Yourself in the Mirror

“Being cannot have the character of an entity. Thus we cannot apply to being the concept of definition,” wrote German philosopher Martin Heidegger in Being and Time. Heidegger argued that being is abstract. That is to say being exists as an idea or experience or in other terms, a happening marked by event or occurrence. Heidegger believed that to understand more fundamentally the self, one did so by considering the concept of dasein a German vernacular meaning “existence” which informed the idea of the authentic self.

Vivian Jaffe: What do you think would happen if you didn’t tell the stories? Are you being yourself?
Brad Stand: How am I not myself?
Bernard Jaffe: How am I not myself?
Vivian Jaffe: How am I not myself?
Bernard Jaffe: How… am I not… myself?
—I Heart Huckabees

This authentic self, has become a common theme in much of contemporary photography and has manifested itself in photographers turning the camera on their own lives or work that dissects the anatomy of the photographic medium. Regarding this photography with strong themes of the authentic self—autobiography is hindering photography’s ability to create particular truths understood through metaphor and has been lost to an attempt at authentic personal narrative, especially a narrative of specificity and narrow margins of universality. Photography’s truth making ability has been supplanted by self-reflection as an attempt to justify an existence now without a reason beyond self-fulfillment. Truth—it seems from the perspective of such personal narrative photography—is if not dead then dying, and photography has become not about considering the possibility of some contingent universally accepted truths through time, place, autobiography, and metaphor but rather time, place, and metaphor haven taken a back seat to autobiography of camera and photographer searching for consistency finding it in self-fulfillment and the affirmation of promoting its own existence as important and authentic, even if narrowly relatable. As societal norms and values evolve and our perspective shifts around these realities, photography works well to subvert preconceptions but the realities that photography subverts were indifferent of any perspective of them to begin with. “[M]ost of reality is indifferent to our descriptions of it, and that the human self is created by the use of a vocabulary rather than being adequately or inadequately expressed in a vocabulary, then we should at last have assimilated what was true in the Romantic idea that truth is made rather than found” wrote pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty. Despite reality being indifferent, we need some objective truth—even if truth that makes sense within the boundaries of a particular time and place—by which we navigate reality and society functions cohesively. That’s where photography does best as it is so tied to reality, the happenings in the frame of the photograph closely resembling what happened or at least, what things looked like when it happened. Functioning as a contingency of time, photography subverts what we think we see and speaks to something unseen before. It is photography as representation, as language, that can assign meaning—creating truth from indifference and things out of happenings.