Figure 1: Henry Fox Talbot 1834-1836. Mousetrap camera.
"The Lord sees everything you do. Wherever you go, he is watching.” - Proverbs 5:21
The Power of the Camera
Growing up in an environment where the Christian doctrine was promoted, the phrase “God sees everything”, was often used. Particularly I might add, by old grandmother and grandfather like figures who wanted to protect the young from either similar ‘mistakes’ they had made, or to ensure they were raised as good Christians. As a child, the idea that a God could see everything I did, was profound. I was probably 6 or 7 years old when the realisation of what privacy meant dawned on me. That notion that everything I did, was being documented by God, whom I could not readily see, who had never provided cooked food or comforted me, never spoke to me, quietly enraged me – after all, not even my mother entered the bathroom when I showered. So why am I discussing God on a photography blog? Well, for the obvious reason – God Sees Everything.
Before the birth of the camera, the idea that there would be a time when almost everything we did would be documented in real-time through still and moving images was an act only God was capable of doing. And although every day, billions of still and moving images are captured on our smartphones, cameras, CCTVs, drones and satellites, we have stunningly accepted this profound ability of the all-seeing with placidity. We’re not in awe, it is not God, but if we stop for a moment to think about it, this ability to see everything, is information collecting, knowledge collecting. Therefore, we cannot exclude the idea, however absurd, that photography is God, and God is photography.
Suppose it could be ‘proven’, that God is not what we had been taught? And just what, had we been taught about what or who God is and is not? If we look at Christianity for a description of God, we’re told that only one man saw God, and that man was Moses. After Moses (a former prince of Egypt who was born to Hebrew parents but was adopted by the Pharaoh of Egypt daughter) led the Hebrew people out of Egypt, freeing them from Pharaoh’s rule (his brother). He went into the mountains, where a ‘burning bush’ spoke to him; when Moses asked who it was, the burning bush replied that it was God. If we are to acknowledge the literal interpretation of God as a burning bush that speaks, a non-human entity, then it’s not so far-fetched, in the age of the media, to imagine God taking on the likeness of a photo apparatus. The camera is everywhere, every day, every second, documenting our lives, providing proof of our existence, proof of our demise, proof of our good deeds, proof of our crimes and lies. And like the concept of God, the camera leaves us to our thoughts as we analyse what's presented before us.
The photographic apparatus does not interfere with the post production of the object it produces, nor does it offer an opinion regarding how we should interpret what is shown to us. In a way, it’s similar to how the Christian God does not directly interfere with lives on earth, the Christian God has produced humankind with free will to interpret what is shown to us. As beings with the capacity of free will - minds capable of selecting any life paths to follow, we are constantly navigating towers of mazes that never remain quite the same. Our understanding of the photograph is likely to evolve over a period, and it's affected by our culture, innovations, home and academic environments, as well as our innate thoughts and shifting moods. Perhaps one day our awareness of the messages photography leaves will lead to a better and more thoughtful society. Until then, the camera continues its job of documenting, everything.
Figure 1. WILLIAM HENRY FOX TALBOT. n.d. Mousetrap Camera 1834-1836 [image]. Available at: http://collection.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects/co15022/mousetrap-camera-box-camera [accessed 8 July 2017].