What's in a Photo

Photographs can tell stories. Sometimes, they tell them silently. This is an exercise in listening.

Photographs can mean many things to many people. Me, I am interested in photographs that don't simply “show something”, but tell a story and invite you to come up with your own interpretations of the scene that's being shown. Once upon a while, I am lucky to capture an image that just jumps at me. Granted, these shots are few and far between, and this is what makes them so valuable. They seem to compress an entire story into the frame of the camera and can literally speak to you on a level that greatly exceeds the pure fact of displaying something that you saw when you pressed the shutter.

On my trip to New York in August 2008, I was able to capture an image that, to me, might be one of my deepest images, one of those photos that unfold like the layers of an onion when you take the time to look at them closely.

I was on my way to Coney Island and was riding an N-train across Manhattan Bridge. Sitting on the left side of the train, I turned right to shoot a photo of the New York skyline outside the train windows. What I got though was not just that, but an image that, to me at least, tells a lot about the city and its inhabitants.

At first sight, the photo doesn't seem to be overly spectacular. It predominantly consists of dark areas (if “dark” equals “black” for you, you might want to check your monitor brightness), interrupted by mainly one horizontal row of brightness that turns out to be a train window. A woman sits in the center of the image, gazing out of the window without actually looking at anything particular. She's got some sheets of paper in her hand and is listening to music from her earphones. Outside the window, you can see Lower Manhattan and one of its landmarks, Brooklyn Bridge.

New York is a city that is widely displayed in the media. You can see it every day on television, in movies, magazines and newspapers. Most people could easily recognize its famous landmarks, and to the keen eye, even a shot of a regular New York streetscape will reveal hints about the city in which it was taken. New York is ubiquitous, you could say, and it seems like everybody has an idea of what the city is like — in their eyes and coined by the images they saw in the media. But what's behind this facade of this famous city? How about its inhabitants, how do they live, how do they feel about the city that they call their home?

Perhaps, this very image can tell us something about their relationship to the city, and they city's relationship to its inhabitants.

The frame of the train window with the brightly lit cityscape outside suggests the wide screen of a television set or movie screen. In front of it, there's just the dark theater and the audience, represented by the woman. The cityscape, bathed in light, moves past like a tracking shot in a movie, while the audience sits in the dark and is really nothing more than a bystander.

This is where we get a hint at the relationship between the famous city and its (mostly) non-famous inhabitants. There will be days when the city seems to move past like a scene in movie, you being degraded to nothing more than a spectator. Its almost transcendent glamour can overpower any of your aspirations and push you down to the bottom of its urban canyons, a single ant in a colony of roughly eight millions, insignificant, while the magic aura of its towers shines around the globe, telling a story of glory and success — which will actually just be the story of a few people who happened to make it to the top of the colony.

Having knowledge of this discrepancy between the famous city (which is made up of individuals, but only appears as a single entity — “the city”) and the insignificant individual might surely be a fact of life that New Yorkers are aware of and that pushes them down on their knees from time to time. The threat to anyone living in New York is that the city is able to (and probably will one day) overpower you and make you feel small, insignificant and paralyzed, as seen in the woman that gazes out of the window. And trying to counter this feeling, New Yorkers may have developed their famed way of life: working hard to finally make it to the top — from the masses of ants in the streets to the top of the skyscrapers, striving to achieve the same level of fame that defines this city.

When I went to New York for the first time in 2007, my self imposed goal was to capture the essence of the city in my photos, instead of the superficial scenes that are widely known from the media and the stereotypes that are rooted in our minds. On my second trip in 2008, I seem to have succeeded in shooting a picture that depicts these thoughts.


– 2009-04-11 13:23:23

Excellent post, Toby. Consider this one shared in my Google Reader items :)

I also had a look at some of your older photos -- and have shared the "Screenplay" image from the Fotomarathon Gallery. Absolutely amazing concept and photo.

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