Operated by John-Riley Harper. Dedicated to archiving photography from Utah's underground scenes, as well as other personal projects.

Programming the Eye: How Cultures Read Photographs Differently
I've been reading the Indian photography magazine Better Photography voraciously in the past few weeks. The writing greatly outpaces any local photo magazines (i.e., mags from the United States). Better Photography adds real criticism to the discussion and I recommend it to any photographer interested in gaining thicker skin.

Better Photography contains a section where professional photographers analyze reader photos. They rarely love any, but give reasons and try to be honest about their reactions. I was struck in one by a word I keep seeing in the publication: loneliness. The commentary (in pink, below) says the photo depicts "a sense of the long, lonely road." This is just one example, but I've seen it throughout the publication. This time it finally bubbled up on my mental radar.

The Indians look for or find the quality of "loneliness" very often in photographs. Each time, I've nodded my head and subconsciously said, "Well I suppose that could be; sure, loneliness." But loneliness is never something I would have immediately identified as a value transmitted through the photo. From an American perspective, I could just as easily see those photos as conveying quiet or stillness. 

[Example pulled from page 97 of Better Photography, May 2013.]  

I suspect that the overpopulated nature of India makes these remote, isolated scenes alien and strange to viewers there. In America they are not so rare, and since we see empty scapes so often - and feel a variety of emotions within them - casting a solitary photo with certainty into the category of "loneliness" assumes too much. Here, it could be a morning walk, a hike or jog, a camping trip. There are two people at the scene, after all (photographer and subject). It's not loneliness at all. The person has company. Alternatively, photos that are much more common to the Indian - populated with such a density of figures that I can't help but feel awe - seem alien and strange to me. The crowded scenes of India, filled with people performing intimate behaviors in public, simply don't happen here - or at the very least would require creeping stealth and borderline stalking behaviors. There they are common. Here they are rare. 

I love how, by looking at how other cultures read photographs, you can sometimes get a sense for the way eyes get programmed differently. An empty photograph conveys a much different feeling to someone used to empty space. 

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