This essay, written by Jess Crombie, was commissioned to critically reflect on the content generated by the Provisional Semantics project and looks at wider ethical considerations in photography.

The Provisional Semantics project recognised the need for additional context when we look at historical images of people whose names or thoughts have not been captured alongside the image. This acknowledged that the men pictured in this archive were not symbols or objects of colonialism, as they have been presented in these photographs, but humans full of all that fills a human.

When viewing these images, it is impossible not to ask who these men were – not just their names, but their histories, their stories. It is hard to imagine those who took these pictures asking themselves this question, because to ask it recognises a shared humanity that is not communicated in these images and the original captions. In the associated event Challenging the Imperial Gaze: IWM’s Second World War Indian photographs Dr Diya Gupta, who reviewed letters that other Indian soldiers sent home while fighting for their colonisers, gave us access to tantalising snippets of potential internal dialogue. In one letter we hear that ‘letters mean half meeting and they are a great consolation to us’ - a statement indicating homesickness and allowing us to imagine the answer to the question: what were they thinking?

In Can the Subaltern Speak? [1988] Giyatri Chakravorty Spivak identified that the term representation can mean both ‘representation as ‘speaking for’’ and ‘representation as re-presentation, as in art or philosophy’, but in both meanings, ‘the subject is not seen as a representative consciousness (one representing reality adequately)’ (Spivak, p70).

According to Spivak’s definitions, the men in these photographs have not been considered as a ‘representative consciousness’, they have not been given the choice to represent themselves, they have been both represented, and re-presented. No matter how much we might wish to know what they are thinking, these men cannot speak.

They are almost certainly dead, or even if alive their identities are unknown to us. However, by asking what might be going on in the minds of new and unanticipated audiences to these images, we can add other knowledge to them, and begin to answer the question of what was going on for the people represented (both by the camera and by the coloniser).

Adding to the knowledge

All images are made to be looked at – by someone, at some time, images have anticipated audiences. But what if we invited unanticipated audiences to view these images and captured their responses? The Provisional Semantics project asks what ‘values, processes, resources and ethical/methodological approaches are needed to accommodate the multiple and provisional interpretations required to genuinely represent UK Heritage’, and to answer this question, we might choose to consider the interpretations of those who may have something more personal to add.

The breadth of invited responses could be wide and should certainly include people from the Indian or Pakistani diasporas living in the UK, or people still living in the areas where these images were taken. By inviting the opinions and reactions of those who are not academics and curators (although I welcome our input as well), we can add valuable additional readings, voices and context to these images.

In my work I take photographs and films made by humanitarian organisations to raise awareness or money for a cause and ask those who appear in these stories and others who are nearby for their responses. Not only are those to whom I am speaking not the anticipated audiences of these images and stories, but often the people whose own faces and experiences being shared within these materials have never seen this content before, despite their inclusion.

The responses are, of course, as individual and varied as the people whose opinions I source, from the woman who acknowledged that a film showing a time in her life when she and family experienced chronic malnutrition depicted it as they experienced that time in their life; ‘what was filmed is the way it is. Even what he said about the soup being prepared without salt.’ (Warrington & Crombie p58), to those who recognise the power imbalance baked into the image making process; ‘I want to take the photos, not be an object’ (Warrington & Crombie pV).

These responses from the image ‘subject’ add to the knowledge that is contained within an image and can bring new perspectives. In an unpublished piece of research carried out in 2010 by Siobhan Warrington and Clodagh Miskelly <a>4</a>in partnership with the international non-governmental organisation Save the Children, the researchers took images created for the purposes of the research and solicited responses to those images from people living in the same country as the individuals depicted in them.

In one portrait of a Kenyan woman, a Kenyan research respondent answered, ‘I don’t like this image because she is an adult female who has reached womanhood and does not have her own husband or compound’ (Miskelly & Warrington). I used to use this example in my teaching as a way of demonstrating unconscious (or conscious) bias because to my eyes there is nothing that could lead the viewer to this conclusion.

The woman is shown against a red plaster wall from the shoulders up, her head is covered by a blue scarf, her hands are not pictured (so no possibility of there being or not being a wedding ring), she looks squarely in the camera with what might be described as a Mona Lisa smile.

I have since realised that I had assumed that it was bias that had led to the respondent’s comment, and that instead maybe there was something that I, a British person, didn’t or couldn’t read or perceive in this image. This example underscores how important it is to seek out the perspectives of the people represented in images and those from similar cultural contexts, to have the opportunity to hear those multiple responses when reading an image.

The variety of different truths

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined culture as a ‘context’ which can only be ‘thickly – described’ (Geertz, 1993, p14). He illustrates what he means by this in his discussion of winking, explaining that winking has different meanings in different cultures, and that in order to grasp what the meaning of a wink might be in a particular cultural context, you have to be familiar with the ‘imaginative universe’ of the culture in question (Geertz, 1993, p13).

Taking this a step further, the philosopher Jacques Derrida asserts that ‘context is never absolutely determinable’ (Derrida, 1972, p3), that is, contexts are not fixed and there isn’t only one way of understanding context - it is based in a deeply personal and individual notion of how we experience what we see, hear, feel and know.

Words and images are imbued with cultural meaning, and as the intellectual Joseph Mensah explains, culture is a ‘dialectical, contextual, socially constructed and contested concept connoting how people make sense of the world, and the way that they attach values and meanings to the material and non-material world based on their own experience and socioeconomic and political setting’ (Mensah, 2008, p39).

It is this complexity that makes translation difficult and imprecise, which is also why it is important to recognise and seek out multiple contextual interpretations – contexts that may be contradictory or personal.

No response to an image should be interpreted as the one, singular truth. Instead, a variety of responses can bring to light the variety of different truths surrounding an image, including the truths of people who are not the intended audience for it.

Ideally, we would have the people in these pictures speaking to us, their names and thoughts and experience would be shared. But the space where this information is missing – where the original source voices have been lost - can be filled with a multiplicity of other readings and responses. Making steps to ensure that one interpretation does not dominate the way we read these images.

About the author

Jess Crombie is a researcher and scholar working as a Senior Lecturer at UAL, and as a consultant for the development and humanitarian sector. In both contexts Jess utilises almost two decades as a senior leader in the charity sector to explore documentary image making and ethics and find practical ways to navigate this complex area. Her research focus is investigating the potential for power shifts by seeking out the opinions and ideas of the people who share their stories with INGOs around both process and portrayal.

Jess commissioned and co-authored the ground-breaking research The People in the Pictures, and founded and now co-chairs the Bond sponsored 'People in the Pictures working group', set up to bring about sector wide change towards more ethical practises in the creation and use of images of poverty. 

Derrida, Jacques, ‘Signature Event Context’, from Limited Inc (Northwestern University Press, 1972), pp. 1 - 24

Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (Fontana Press, 1993)

Mensah, Joseph, ‘Cultural Dimensions of Globalization in Africa: A Dialectical Interpenetration of the Local and the Global’, from Neoliberalism and Globalization in Africa: Contestations on the Embattled Conflict, ed. Joseph Mensah (Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), pp 33 - 54

Miskelly, Clodadh and Warrington, Siobhan, Depicting Injustice overseas research: final report (unpublished INGO fundraising audience research conducted by Panos London for Save the Children, September 2010)

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravarty, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ from Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, 1983, Rosalind C. Morris (ed), (Columbia University Press, 2010), pp. 21-78

Warrington, Siobhan & Crombie, Jessica, The People in the Pictures: vital perspectives on save the Children’s image making, (2017)


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