John Berger

In John Berger’s essay “Another Way of Telling,” Berger argues that photographs contain a “third meaning.” Berger claims that the third meaning is personal and relies almost completely on the individual viewer. As a result, no photograph can convey the same message to any two people and no two photographs can convey the same message to any one person. Here, the validity of Berger’s assumption crumbles. All photographs communicate one absolute truth.
Berger states, “All subjectivity is treated as private” (100). Yet, claiming that anything subjective within a photograph, its past and future, is personal only supports an absolute truth. The truth, however, is beyond the viewer’s conscious interpretation and the photograph becomes ambiguous. Berger becomes mislead when he compares an individual’s opinion of the past or future of a photograph to the actual truth of the photograph, thus surfaces “ambiguity.” Even Berger agrees that ambiguity is the result of the viewer’s personal experiences and psychology, but he ignores what the viewer cannot see. When discussing the ambiguity of the photograph of the horse and man, page 85, Berger can only guess as to why the photograph was taken and to what the meaning is. Berger describes this process as, “ . . . a game of inventing meanings” (86). Here, Berger admits to creating meanings, based on his life experiences and his personal psychology. Obviously, if one places his or her own, fictitious meanings unto a photograph, there can never be a single meaning or truth. But what about the meaning of the photograph itself, alone, without Berger’s private interpretation? This meaning, the absolute truth, remains hidden from all viewers because of their previous experiences, their life. Although the truth may remain disguised behind an individual’s “invented” meaning it does not follow that the truth is nonexistent.
Berger also argues that ambiguity arises because photographs break the continuity of time, which again is another falsehood. When a photograph is taken and an event captured, the past and future are irrelevant. The instant taken by the camera is true and factual. Everything that led up to the photograph and everything that follows leaves the instant photographed, and the consequent truth, unaffected. The truth conveyed by the photograph may be harder to decipher, but remains a truth regardless. Berger uses an example of a landscape photographed, page 91, to describe the effects of broken continuity. Berger claims that the light and the weather are taken from their setting and the photograph becomes ambiguous. Nothing is ambiguous about the actual instant photographed. The light and weather captured by the camera were the same light and weather as the instant of the photograph. Berger does not even attempt to apply a meaning to a landscape in his essay. Berger excludes landscapes because they are not ambiguous. There is nothing to dispute about the lighting or weather of a landscape, but the photograph must still carry a meaning. The reason Berger fails to apply meaning to landscapes is that he is unable to draw upon his own life experiences and psychology to create a mythical truth, or a personal truth. The truth is not personal; it is universal and singular, thus escaping Berger’s imagination.
If the photograph were to be replaced back into its surrounding time, fixing the continuity, would the meaning differ? Would Berger now be able to “invent” an ambiguous meaning for the photograph? Nothing from Berger’s personal past could influence the landscape captured within the photograph; thus Berger is unable to assign meaning. When Berger is unable to assign meaning, the photograph must be clear and lucid, not ambiguous. The singular truth behind the photograph has not allowed Berger any room for a personal reading.
Another example of Berger’s attempt to falsify photographs by creating meanings for them occurs when discussing the photograph on page 101, of the parting man and woman. Berger says, “Perhaps they are speaking. We cannot hear their words. Perhaps they are saying nothing . . .” (102). Berger would argue that this is the reason for ambiguity within the photograph, the viewer’s inability to know what is being said, if anything. But the viewer’s lack of knowledge or insight cannot affect the truth of the photograph. Berger mistakes his own shortcomings, his own ignorance, for ambiguity in the photograph.