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A sensory approach to “reading” photographs

In “Thinking photography beyond the visual?”, Elizabeth Edwards, a visual and historical anthropologist, draws attention to the multi-sensory and intersensory nature of photographic interactions in an effort to “extend our understanding of photography beyond the visual” (31); or to develop a theory of photography that reconciles orality and tactility with traditions of communication through images and symbols.

Edwards situates her motivation for developing this methodology in the midst of a larger series of movements associated with “postmodernist decentrings and destabilizations which emerged in the 1980s” (36). These postmodern approaches influenced the formation of “corrective anthropology,” which aims to study and understand lived experiences through everyday knowledge. This newer approach to anthropology focuses on examining the sensory to both produce rich ethnographic data, and to question older theoretical stances. These older approaches often rely on Western forms of knowledge that prioritize applied linguistic models of signification to the visual, which ignore other social sensory experiences.

Both sensory and material factors must be considered when looking at photographs because, as W. J. T Mitchell describes, photographs are always “’braided’ in that one sensory channel or semiotic function is woven together with another more or less seamlessly” (in Edwards, 45). Scholars should observe how sensory elements engage with the materiality of photographs, which refers to how images are “handled, caressed, stroked, kissed, torn, wept over, lamented over, talked to […]” (33), and how they are displayed and performed on.

Edwards provides a short analysis of how the auditory engages with the visual. She states, “photographs are enmeshed in oral stories – personal, family, and community histories – as the narrated world is vocally articulated” (38). As such, the oral and the visual are revealed as inseparable, impacting the way that people engage with and perceive photographs, as well as those around them. A lack of sound is also meaningful to observe as silence can reveal a site where power relations are at play, silencing potential narratives associated with a photograph while permitting others to be voiced.

Edwards also reveals how tactility is interwoven with the oral and visual. In everyday social interactions with photography, tactility is involved because “people must be in the presence of one another” and because photos are “passed from hand to hand, displayed, and discussed and handled” (43). Further, Edwards cites Barthes, who explains how the act of touching a photo provides more solidity to information being received from the other senses.

Reading photographs through a material-sensory approach can give credibility to perspectives that have been marginalized, fractured, or dispossessed. Developing and employing an approach like this, as Edward concludes, can “fundadamentally refigur[e] our understanding of not only the social function of photography […] but also the areas of aesthetic practice: from the privileging of certain forms of sensory and material response in traditional connoisseurship” (46).

About kaitlynholbein

I'm a part-time Rhetoric and Communication Design Master’s student and full-time communications and marketing professional. I received my B.A. in English literature, with a minor in Sociology, from Carleton University.


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