Is it possible to see objectively?

A fisherman smiles as he fixes ring nets along a coastline in Tiwi, Bicol. Why did I choose to frame it this way? Why did I wait for him to smile? What will my viewers feel when they see this image? I showed this photograph to a colleague, and all he had to say was that ring nets aren’t sustainable.

I don’t think it is. Quantum physics suggests that the mere act of looking alters what we’re looking at. So too do we add on to objective truths in how we view our subjects.

In his article Framing Compassion, Kennedy talks at length about the work of conflict photographer Larry Burrows during the Vietnam war of the mid-1960’s. As a professional photographer immersed in the field, I’m sure he pursued objectivity. Depending on your history and where you’re viewing his images from, however, narratives spill out atop whatever objective realities may be there within the frame. For a Western audience, a photograph of a soldier next to a Vietnamese mother signifies a narrative of care; for those in occupied Vietnam, it could very well be an image of oppression. Even the documenting act is an act of subjectivity — why did we choose this tableau over the others? What, in our storied histories, chose us to frame this narrative in such a way?

Because we are informed by our own histories, it becomes impossible for us to see objectively. We can notice the objective, but that ignores our full experience with the image. After documenting an unsanitary waste dump in Cagayancillo, for example, I got comments that ranged from sadness over the environment, to anger at local governments, to sweeping disdain toward the human race — all facets of the viewer’s experience with the image, tacked on to the objective reality of a pile of plastic on an island in Cagayancillo.

Environmentalist, culture conservationist, essayist. Development studies graduate. A collector of stories.

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