"Nature, Residential, Urban" Project
Introduction to Digital Photography
Digital photography has become a significant hobby of mine, so in my junior year, I enrolled in an Introduction to Digital Photography class to develop my technical and critical skills. One of the first project assignments the class received was to make photographs following the themes of nature, residential, and urban and select one photo to represent each category. The professor also challenged us to find interesting or surprising ways to represent those themes (i.e., no butterflies for the nature category). The final photographs I presented each focused on an object, and the series was based on the idea of how the contexts of those objects within the photos could affect viewers' reactions.
I learned in class that color, light, and composition make photographs visually appealing, but implied situations or narratives can make them meaningful. As I explored different environments in search of images to capture for the digital photography project, I kept coming back to the idea of using pathos, the rhetorical appeal to emotions, to make meaning in my photographs. As a result, my three images on nature, residential, and urban—titled Bag, Bike, and Building, respectively—approach the combination of objects and contexts in such a way that they can evoke emotional reactions to get people thinking about the works.
My use of pathos in Bag was the most deliberate of the three photographs. Whereas Bike and Building portray objects that are in situ, the plastic chip bag in Bag was not originally located in a stream of water. I found it on a rock on the bank of the stream and knew I wanted to do something compelling with it on the theme of nature, so I emphasized its role as a pollutant by placing it in the nearby water. In this case, the pathos of the photograph evokes a saddened, disgusted, or even outraged response from the viewer, something I confirmed when I presented the photograph to my classmates. However, I also sought to complicate the emotional response by questioning the bag’s role as pollutant even after I emphasized it: I placed a leaf next to the bag that is the exact color of an image on the bag, thus implying a similarity between the two. Even though pathos works to draw in the viewer by eliciting a gut reaction, other compositional elements simultaneously work to deepen the meaning of the photo.
The other two photographs employ similar strategies. In the case of Bike, I created pathos by zooming in very close to a broken toy, appealing to the emotions of worry and sadness, perhaps even nostalgia. The use of pathos is intended to create an opening for viewers, but the photo also aims to prompt viewers to reconsider generally the way people monumentalize such small objects and events. Building presents a brick building as it appears in the darkness of night, with various lights creating an ominous, mysterious aura. Its pathos conjures feelings of unease, tension, and fear, but other elements of the photograph reveal the building to be simply an auto repair shop that even has components that might seem inviting or entertaining in daylight (a mat in front of the sidewalk, an old-style gas pump, etc.).
In one way, photographs and other visual media are rhetorical because they present arguments for why viewers should pay attention to them and find them meaningful and/or useful. As a medium that is closely (though not necessarily) associated to the visual capture of reality, photography can easily present its argument to viewers by capturing or commenting on an emotionally significant topic. I took a series of photographs that are of simple objects in various contexts, but each is meant to evoke a certain emotion from the viewer and stimulate additional thought in a particular way. Through creating this series of photographs and later presenting it to my class, I learned how the pathos of imagery can draw people in and also serve as a gateway to identify further layers of meaning.