Photography has become an omnipresent characteristic of modernity. It offers a disassociation with reality that is critical to understanding how we have been made to view our world and what the effects of this vision are. Photography always emits a kind of violence, exemplified by the verbs that are associated with photography ie to: take, load, aim, shoot, capture. Photography is a hunt. The camera is a gun. What, then, is it killing?
The year is 1968. It is Christmas eve. Picturesque atomic families are clustered in their warm and cozy fire-lit homes. White-picket fences abound and are snow-bound. Chestnuts roast on an open fire, the American Dream is graspable, Jack Frost nips at your nose. Or toes. But every so often, furtive glances are cast at the starry pin-pricked night sky. Tonight, it is not just for Santa and his reindeer that there are these star-gazers’ glances. It is for those three floating boys—Frank Borman, William Anders, and Jim Lovell—the Apollo 8 astronauts who are rotating adrift in outer space. Tomorrow marks the birthday of our lord and savior, but today marks the birthday of a photograph that will change the world.
The photograph is mostly an immense black void of outer space. There are a few scattered paint-fleck stars that are almost unnoticeable in the black-ground. The bottom foreground of the picture is the angled rocky husk of the moon’s crusty surface. It is pockmarked and vaguely luminous; a stark contrast against the space void. Near the middle of the picture is a hazy blue-white earth, floating listlessly above the moon’s crust. This is the focus of the picture. The earth is bright and small, not even a whole globe, just slightly larger than half full.
The camera used was a handheld Hassleblad film camera. The dimensions of this photograph depend on where you’re seeing it: magazine, poster, postcard, flag, mug, television, computer screen, phone. It can change shape and size; it is morphable. It has become a prime souvenir.
This picture was unplanned—becoming witness to an earthrise was unexpected aboard the Apollo 8. As those astronauts rotated gravitationally above the moon’s surface, snapping photos of the moon beneath them, they saw the Planet Earth suddenly begin to rise before them. There was a flurry of panic as the astronauts aboard searched for color-film to shoot and capture the experience.
This photograph shows an Earth that is a Planet, stuck fast in and surrounded by an immense darkness, alone. She is a waxing gibbous, which means she is slowly emerging from shadow and dark. You can still see that darkness though, covering her bottom, creeping up her bulk. She is fragile, bare, and vulnerable. This picture marks the first time humankind penetrated the earth’s atmosphere, it marks the first time humankind caught a glimpse of that dark, hidden side of the moon. This was the first time anyone was able to see Planet Earth with their own naked eye.
It seems indecent. Here is a voyeuristic peek at the gibbous Earth, and oh! she’s just waking up, she’s not even fully dressed. This vantage point had been but the stuff of dreams until the very moment this photograph was taken. This perspective had always been the viewpoint of the Gods, until now. Humankind has always stood with feet firmly planted on the earth gazing up to the heavens—now humankind hovers in the heavens, looking back upon the Earth.
The Earthrise photograph evidences a legendary feat of mankind. While it depicts an image of a newly-morphed Earth, one that is certainly round and finite, rather than stretching flatly before us in an infinite way, its meaning indicates another transformation. We have here, for the first time, propelled ourselves to hover among the heavens, fixed ourselves into the eternal back-drop of stars and their primordial stories. We have become greater even than the legendary heroes—Orion or Hercules—that the ancient Gods were said to have once immortalized as constellations in the black night sky, because we have placed ourselves, living, among those constellations. We have assumed the role of the Gods. This picture is “proof”.
The Earthrise photograph is evidence of our modern morphed understanding of the Earth. For much of our past, the Earth meant the tangible ground beneath our feet; the soil we could hold in our hands. It was the land we lived with, it was our home, and it stretched on as far as we could see. This new Earth photograph replaces our perception of that original home-earth. Instead of a vast expanse of tangible land that we could see, touch, taste, smell or feel—that we could know with our senses, it has become abstracted. We now know the earth is a spherical blueish planet floating vaguely against a black backdrop pinpricked by innumerable stars.
In this photograph, we have been presented with a new creation story which Wolgang Sachs describes in his text Planet Dialectics as “the discovery of the earth” (Sachs et al 2000). Sachs describes the fascination Neil Armstrong had with this new found perspective of the earth, a sort of “inverted astronomy” that absolutely countered our ancestors’ perception of place and existence; rather than feet-on-ground, gazing up at the heavens and the gods therein, human now found himself amid the heavens, gazing godlike down upon the earth. The souvenir photograph of this new earth has been splayed across screens, magazines, books, clothes, flags, etc and, I argue, has distorted our idea of the earth and place in a negative way that perpetuates problems that arise from industrialization and globalization.
This photograph turns our understanding of the world from something vast, expansive and limitless into that which can be contained if we remove ourselves far enough from it. In harnessing the earth in this abstract image of a blue sphere, I believe we have developed a very oblique and controlling understanding of the earth. Sachs explains that without this photograph, we could not have perceived the earth as an object of management. We see the earth now as something that can be contained and contemplated, we’ve created “global awareness”; we’ve twisted the earth into something that can be pinpointed, checked, managed, planned, dominated. “Viewing the earth from space” Sachs argues, “clearly continues our domination-prone knowledge” (Sachs et al 2000).
We now know the Earth anew, evidenced and TRUE because it is proven in a photograph. It is now a finite globe we can only conceptualize—we can only truly “see”—because of these Earth photographs. Rather than the realization that the earth is spherical, and rather than the creation of maps and globes, it is that this souvenir from our first moon vacation; a graspable photograph of the planet that has become the modern creation story for the earth, because, like the creation stories of the past, it has contributed to a fundamental shift of our collective understanding of where we come from and what we are doing here.
In this photograph, we believe we have rendered a truer earth. Photography is all about objectivity. Photographs can’t lie. They are the proof. They are, therefore, a white lab-coated scientist’s best friend. They are considered to be “as close to the actual thing as we can possible get”. They are a precise and accurate rendering. But the pursuit of pure objectivity can get a little silly. Latin American fantastic fiction writer, Jorge Luis Borges, writes satirically about this scientific desire for precision and accuracy in his short story, On Exactitude in Science:
…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that the vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography (Borges, 2002, p. 12).
Borges describes here what happens when the map literally becomes the territory, when it is used to represent that which it describes on a one-to-one scale. Note again the title of the short story. While the story is specifically referring to the most precise and useless map, the title On Exactitude in Science refers specifically to the scientific drive for precision, meticulous replication. This playful thought experiment satirizes the impracticability—and nonsense—of an exact correspondence between the signified and the signifier. There is always slippage.
Here is a modern equivalent of Borges’ cartographers in a description of what our modern satellite images can and cannot relay:
Satellite pictures scanning the globe’s vegetative cover, computer graphs running interacting curves through time, threshold levels held up as worldwide norms are the language of global ecology. It constructs a reality that contains mountains of data, but no people. The data do not explain why Tuaregs are driven to exhaust their water-holes, or what makes Germans so obsessed with high speed on freeways; they do not point out who owns the timber shipped from the Amazon or which industry flourishes because of a polluted Mediterranean Sea; and they are mute about the significance of forest trees for Indian tribals or what water means in an Arab country. In short, they provide a knowledge that is faceless and placeless, an abstraction that carries a considerable cost: it consigns the realities of culture, power and virtue to oblivion. It offers data, but no context; it shows diagrams, but no actors; it gives calculations, but no notions of morality; it seeks stability, but disregards beauty (Sachs, 1999, p. 44).
Borges’ cartographers’ mapping technique provides an accurate representation of the landscape on a scale of one-to-one, but it’s only two-dimensional, lacking in depth, erasing and occluding facts that don’t fit with their measurements. In their attempt to be perfectly objective, the cartographers fail to be empirical. In their pride and eagerness to replicate everything, they neglect the original.
Similarly, a photograph takes something real and turns it into a picture, a representation or an echo of that thing. The original becomes replicated and replaced. A photograph is like a tangible metonym; a thing that replaces, stands in for, and substitutes something else. Here we might examine the Japanese term ‘nazorearu’ which Lafcadio Hearn defines in his collection of Japanese Folk Tales The Kwaidan. Nazorearu essentially means substituting or replacing something with a smaller representation of that thing. This substitution or replication is done with an intent that metaphorically turns that object into that which it represents (Hearn, 2013). Experience, therefore, is ‘nazorearu-istically’ transformed into a photograph. Photography is a kind of alchemy that replaces the real with its shadow-image.
The photogenic aspect of an experience is the part we want to photograph. We save the aesthetic, idealistic version of an experience and cast aside the messy uncanny aspects we do not wish to convey. As a souvenir, a photograph has the ability to make an experience tacky—it concisely and consciously cheapens it. Our souvenir of that holy, silent night shows a naked, vulnerable, mass-marketable, frameable, contained earth that can only be known now as a Planet.
There was a time when ‘earth’ also meant ‘home’. To dismantle the mechanical and managerial mentality (and its ill effects) with which we grasp this planet we must turn the earth once again into a local place—we must let go of the photograph of the graspable blue marble and again know the earth as the place we immediately inhabit; we must know it again as our one and only home.
Today, in the constant convenience of photographing and viewing photographs, our world is rapidly disintegrating into the images that represent the reality. Stories and reminiscences are replaced with quickly skimmable images. Photographs are snippets of reality and are cut out of context. The Anthropocene, is heavily masked and marked by the omnipresence of images that are ‘nazorearuistic’ mimicry of the real. As we violently capture moments of our choosing we mercilessly suppress the challenging whole. It is ironic that photography, then, is perceived as prime objectivity. What do photographs neglect to capture? Anything beyond the frame!