The Burden of Photography

The burden of photography is in its ability to create a philosophical dialogue, through the processes of making as well as viewing photographs. Ambiguity in photography is causa sui: in its creation as well as its consumption. In its creation, making photographs is certainly a way of choosing[1]. If a photographer acts on its will and makes a photograph, how does it choose what to photograph? This points to the problems of perception, conscious and the unconscious. What is this way of choosing that a photographer indulges in? What is that first glimpse of attraction that makes one attend to a particular scene? How is the mind, consciously or unconsciously, able to perceive a scene, to choose that scene to make it a photograph? Similarly, how is the viewer consciously or unconsciously perceiving the photograph? In its consumption, photography has been endowed with the possibility of being interpreted in multiple ways. The waywardness and ambiguity of the process of viewing photographs initiates intriguing discourse in the medium, making one realize the subjectivity of perception. From a cognitive as well as a cultural perspective, perception is one of the most challenging phenomena to decipher; photography gives further credibility and promotion to the mystery of perception.

When viewing or making photographs, there are four aspects that come to mind: visuality, conceptuality, memory and representation. Visuality would mean the way it looks like (a photograph by its nature is a visual object), conceptuality would mean the concepts it presents to the viewers’ mind (of a bench by a photograph of a bench), memory would mean that it acts a vehicle of something that actually happened, and representation would mean that it acts as an object of strict depiction of reality. Photographs might have these as selective or overlapping characteristics. Apart from conceptuality, particular memory and representation, the characteristic of visuality is what makes the photograph a subjective matter. A particular visual scenario affects different people distinctively (the rasa[2] might be different for different people). Visuality is also something that differentiates one photograph from the other; two photographers would make a different photograph of the same subject depending on their own aesthetic style and taste. Two people might also perceive the same visuality differently.

Photography by its very nature is a form of documentation. As a photographer, it’s about what position one comes from and what one intends to do in that position; photographers that intend to make photos from an activist intention, photographers that intend to make work from a position of existential inquiry, or both. It is also not the case that photography only done with an activist intention (like photojournalism) does not involve a personal observation. It is just that the intention of propagating an ontological motive is significant at a higher degree for work that is also made out of existential inquiry. Either way, the process of making a photograph involves a certain kind of composition (that might become attached to the photographer’s style), which is a certain way of looking. Especially for photographs made on the street (that are not staged), the way a photographer composes a particular scene into a photograph is one that happens at a deep cognitive level, which cannot be completely cached out in literal words or propositions. It might be an intuition or action bred out of continuous habit. Unless the photographer completely stages the scene, there is no objective method that can identified and formulated to understand the making of certain kinds of photographs. Along with the choice of subject matter, the choice is also the choice of visuality. An unconscious perception drives the choosing and making of aparticular visuality (perceptual and visual are inextricably linked), which is what premises the ambiguity of photographing.

When one looks at a photograph, there is a holistic perception: perception of the intention of the photographer as well as perception of these characteristics as defined by the paradigm. When looking at a photograph of a protestor, the intention of the photographer is to make the viewer realize the atrocities of the times that are deeply rooted in the social and political system for which the protest is taking place. On the other hand, there is a photograph of a landscape, cityscape or a self-portrait that differentiates itself by the uniqueness of its composition, the boldness of its inquiry and its interpretative plurality. The characteristic of visuality also attributes an ineffability in the perception of the photograph. Furthermore, along with universal ineffability, a way of perception that is unique to a viewer dominates the act of viewing the photograph; there is an unconscious reality to perceiving the photograph. The photograph is able to create a dialogue around multiple interpretations that arise out of perceptual subjectivity; promulgating the ambiguity in the perception of photography.

The burden of photography is thus the burden of questions it compels one to ask: questions of social, political and ethical significance or questions of ontological, aesthetical and interpretive significance. Unique yet ambiguous visuality is what drives these subjective conversations. Given the current times – the ongoing health crisis, climate change, rise of protests against fascist governments and discrimination, spiritual and material dilemmas et al. – photography has helped create a dialogue through the images that are presented in the world, compelling the audience to think about reality in different ways. Photography is able to create a kind of philosophical dialogue, through its creation as well as its consumption, and this visual philosophy, like all philosophy, is the burden that weighs the world.

[1] David Campany


Biology and Photography

In the middle of the 20th century, a scientist named Rosalind Franklin made a X-ray diffraction photograph called “Photograph 51” that progressed the biological understanding of the human race. This was a photograph of crystalized DNA as found on the chromosome. Another scientist named James Watson, a contemporary of Franklin, looked at this photograph and theoretically formalized the double-helical structure of the DNA. In his book, The Gene, Mukherjee says that after looking at the photograph, Watson had beautifully remarked, “important biological objects come in pairs.” He, along with his fellow Francis Crick, won the Nobel Prize for formalizing this famous structure of the DNA as we know it today. The existence of a pair, couple or two things on a spectrum has been significant throughout human history. Duality reeks through every aspect of our living experience. Along with this, the photograph has played a crucial role in illumination and as we can comprehend, even the progress of human science. The photograph when also made with an artistic intention (an intention not only for experimental evidence as in the case of Photograph 51 but something of a “subjective” creative intention) illuminates scenarios of nature and society that provide a point of view, the possibility of a dialogue and / or a simple emotional affectation. In my opinion, many photographs when looked at in pairs tend to create a visual mystery, a fiction, a transition or a story that seems to loop from one to the other. A connected thread like the double helical DNA stranded together. DNA is the fundamental chemical structure that contains the genetic message for hereditary, and thus evolution, to be possible. In a similar manner, I believe the photograph is a fundamental structure of nature that contains an artistic message that is carried through generations and makes possible the progressive evolution of society. Both seem to be the generators and preservers of instinct and knowledge.

Brentano & Montague on Consciousness

Brentano argues that there are two types of phenomena [1]: mental phenomenon and physical phenomenon. Mental phenomena are perceived in inner perception whereas physical phenomena are perceived in external perception. These different phenomena do not exist outside the sensations but point to things that exist in the real world. Physical phenomena are the phenomena that are the features of physical external objects. So, the color blue, the tree, this paper, are all examples of physical phenomena. On the other hand, mental phenomena are the phenomena that are concerned with the act of presentation (i.e. presenting) in the mental. Every presenting (the act of presentation)that one acquires through sense perception or imagination i.e. a thought, inference, feeling, judgement, act of will et al. is a mental phenomenon. According to Brentano, one always has an inner perception of mental phenomena. Brentano further argues that, “every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) in-existence of an object…phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves.” (Brentano, Book II, Ch. 1, pp. 92-93). The act of presentation (mental phenomena) has content that intentionally exists in the mental act. The act is directed toward an object intentionally. Each mental phenomenon contains content in different ways depending on the kind of mental phenomenon. This content or object intentionally exists in the mental act and is different from the objects that really exist out in the world. This intentional in-existence of an object is characteristic of mental phenomena. Moving on, Brentano argues“the presentation of the sound and the presentation of the presentation of sound form a single mental phenomenon…we simultaneously apprehend the mental phenomenon itself…it has itself as content at the same time.” (Brentano, Book II, Ch. 2, pp. 132-133). He argues that the structure of a mental act or mental phenomena consists of an intentional direction towards a content or object and an inner perception of this mental phenomena. Along with the presentation of a kind of content, every mental act or mental phenomenon is accompanied by an inner perception of itself. One has an immediate self-evident awareness of the experience. Furthermore, “the characteristic fusion of consciousness and the object of consciousness is just as evident in cognition as it was there…because in this case both the perception and the real object of presentation exist within us” (Brentano, Book II, Ch.3, pp. 145). Inner consciousness is in the domain of inner perception, which is infallible, and allows for consciousness to be of an object. Inner consciousness of the mental act makes us aware of this mental act. Inner consciousness is certain in and of itself because one is aware of it through itself. This makes the mental act conscious or an act of consciousness. Consider the example of a red apple. One sees (a presenting) the red apple which intentionally exists as content in the mental act. One has an inner consciousness of this mental act, the act of seeing the apple, which also makes this mental phenomenon (mental act) an act of consciousness.

In a conscious experience (mental act), Montague argues that one has an awareness of an object and a ‘self-intimating’ awareness of this awareness (MM, pp. 364). One has an inner consciousness (Brentano) or awareness of awareness (Montague) of the mental act itself. She believes that awareness of something is always relational i.e., “whenever a subject is aware of anything x, the subject stands in a certain very specific relation to x…saying that x is the, or an, objectof the subject’s awareness.” For one to stand in a relation to something x of such a kind that x is the object of one’s awareness, is to stand in a representational [2] relation to x (Montague, 3.1.2, pp. 57). According to Montague, the awareness is relational and everything one stands in a relation to in being aware of it, is a representational object. She defines content as everything that is given to the subject in having the experience, which is in turn everything that the subject is aware of, in having the experience. As mentioned, everything that one is aware of in having the experience are representational objects of that experience. Thus, content of the experience constitutes all representational objects of the experience (Montague, 3.1.2, pp. 57). External objects such as a ball or an apple are given (representationally) as part of content in the experience. Montague further says that awareness of awareness must be understood as a special ‘self-intimating’ relation. Awareness of awareness is about the experience itself and partly constitutes the experience. Since awareness of awareness is part of the experience and constitutes what the experience is, it partly constitutes itself (Montague, 3.1.2, pp. 59). For example, consider listening to the D chord being played on the piano. One has a conscious experience of listening to music (a representation) and an awareness of this very experience of listening to music (awareness of awareness).

Montague further argues that every conscious mental act also has a phenomenal character (has phenomenological properties or content) i.e. a character of what is it like in the experience? For example, there is something it is like to look at a painting or to hear a piece of music by Mozart.  The awareness of awareness and phenomenological content (phenomenological properties) are constitutively connected, and the experience itself constitutes its own phenomenological content. All conscious experiences with an awareness of awareness, involve a phenomenological qualitative character of what it’s like in the experience. In an experience, the phenomenological property is a property of the experience by virtue of one being aware of having that experience (awareness of awareness). One is immediately aware that one is having an experience and a phenomenological property is instantiated. Furthermore, it is also only by subject’s being aware of what it is like in the experience, that the phenomenological property of what it is likenesscan be a part of the experience. Thus, the phenomenological properties and awareness of awareness are ‘co-constituting’ (MM, 2.4, pp. 364). In having the experience, one is aware of having the experience and this also makes the experience phenomenal. Awareness of awareness accompanies the representation (of the object of experience) and makes a mental act conscious as well as phenomenal. For example, consider a blue car parked on the street. One sees the blue car (a representation) and has an immediate awareness of this experience (awareness of awareness), that also makes the experience phenomenal: what is it like to see the blue car parked on the street?

Montague further considers the perception of individual physical objects. An object is consciously perceived, and the perceptual experience has a character of experiencing that particular object. She defines “phenomenological particularity” i.e., experience of a particular object, as part of the overall phenomenological content or what it’s likeness of the experience (Montague, 6.1.1, pp. 117). She claims that the content of the perceptual experience involves a demonstrative thought – that or this [object]. Looking at a particular object, irrespective of being a veridical or hallucinatory experience, one can demonstrate the content of the experience of being about (representation) that object: that ballor that 3 legged androgyne.Thus, she argues that one’s experience is always object-positing (Montague, 6.2.1, pp. 138). Object-positing is the experience of a this-object. For example, the experience of seeing a yellow ball (object) is the experience of seeing this yellow ball. This accounts for the phenomenological particularity of the experience. Montague argues that if there is nothing in the character of experience which is a this or that [object], then the perceptual experience is not possible (Montague, 6.2.2, pp. 140-141). Consider another example of seeing a tree. When perceiving a tree in the garden, one’s experience is always of seeing that (particular) tree. The content of the experience is phenomenologically particular of that tree.


Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874)

Michelle Montague, The Given: Experience and its Content (Oxford U Press, 2016). References as Montague.

Michelle Montague, “What Kind of Awareness is Awareness of Awareness?” (Grazer Philosophische Studien, 2017). References as MM.

[1] Phenomena are the appearances of objects or things that really and truly exist in the world. They are the objects of our senses that are revealed in the different sensations that one has of things in the world. What appears or comes to view to the human mind are the different phenomena.

[2] Montague defines representation as the phenomenon of something being about or of something (MM).

Human Function and the Good

A good instance of a kind means that the kind does its function with excellence. The characteristic behaviours of a function of an object tell us what the function of the object is. For example, the function of a knife is to cut things whereas a function of a car is transportation. The virtues of an object are the qualities that essentially determine how this function is performed. The characteristic qualities of an object i.e. virtues of the object, help the object perform its function well (1098a12-16). For example, a good knife is one that has a quality of being sharp and not a quality of being blunt. This virtue of sharpness makes the knife perform its own function of cutting well. Furthermore, the quality of having a handle also makes the knife perform its function well. Similarly, for a car to be a good instance of its kind, it would have the quality of safety (for the car to perform well, it would perform the function of transportation safely). Thus, something that performs its own function with excellence and in accordance with virtue is a good instance of its kind.

According to Aristotle, the chief or ultimate good is happiness (1097b1-5). Happiness is always desirable in itself and is never for the sake of something else. It lacks nothing and is a final end in itself. All actions are carried out for agood whereas happiness is the good, which is the end result of this action. Anything that is done – actions of pleasure, honour, reason and others – is done for itself but is also done for the consequent result of happiness. But happiness itself is self-sufficient and the ultimate good (1097b1-7). Consider the example of a person choosing to watch a movie. He wants to watch the movie because he wants to know what the movie is about. He wants to know the plot, character, story et al. of the movie and how they function together – he wants to do the action for itself. But watching the movie would also eventually make him happy. The act of watching the movie would give him pleasure. The action is done for itself but also for the ultimate goal of happiness. Aristotle thus argues that the good resides in the function of the thing. Happiness or the ultimate good resides in the human function (1097b20-30). Humans perform certain functions to ultimately be happy. Therefore, Aristotle thinks that one can identify what happiness is by identifying the function of a human being.

Aristotle believes that the human function has to be exclusive and particular to a human. Nutrition or growth is not the human function as it is common to all plants and animals. Similarly, perception is also common to animals and it cannot be the human function (1097b30-35). For a function or activity, the characteristic behaviours of the function tell us what the function is. A human has a particular characteristic behaviour that is governed by rationality whereas a non-living being does not have the characteristic of being rational. This is a distinctive attribute that separates living and non-living beings. Humans are rational beings whereas animals are non-rational beings. Aristotle thus argues that the human function is to do actions in accordance with reason (1098a7-9). The function of a human is an activity that follows or implies reason. Any action that is done by humans has to be in accordance with reason. Consider the example of walking on the road. When walking on the road, the person would have to act rationally and be aware of the scenario around him. He would have to act with reason and obey traffic laws (a rational action) to not get into an accident.

Aristotle argues that any activity has to be in accordance with virtue for it to be a good instance of its kind. When a human performs his function with virtue, he performs his function well (1098a10-15). Happiness, which is the end result of a activity or function, is in accordance with virtue as virtue helps in performing the human function well (a good instance of its kind). As Aristotle argues, any activity or function is for the final goal of happiness, which is an end in itself. Happiness resides in the human function (1097b20-30). If the human function is well performed, then the human is happy. A good human is a happy human. Consider the example of a doctor treating a patient. A doctor treats his patients with utmost skill and virtue, which makes him perform his function of a medical healer, well. He does this action in accordance with reason and virtue. When this action is a good instance of its kind i.e., he succeeds in helping the patient and performs his function well, he is also ultimately satisfied and content. He performs his function in accordance with virtue and is consequently happy about it. Thus, acting in accordance with virtue makes one perform its function well and results in the ultimate end of happiness.


Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle

Allegory of the Cave

Socrates sets up an allegory to explain the effect of education and of the lack of it on human nature. He describes an underground cave with an entrance a long way up, which is open to light and as wide as the cave itself (514A). Inside the cave are prisoners that are facing the wall and are shackled so that they cannot turn their heads around. Far above and behind them is a fire burning that provides light. There is also a long path between the prisoners and the fire, with a low wall that acts like a screen, like one above which puppeteers show their puppets (514B). Along this low wall, are people with all kinds of artefacts and objects – statues of people and animals made of different materials (515A). These objects thus cast a shadow on the wall of the prisoners. Since the prisoners are fettered, the only things that the prisoners see are the shadows of these objects that are cast on the wall (515B). They would attribute the names of the objects and sounds of the people projecting them, to the shadows of these objects. The only reality that they’d believe is the one that they have experienced. The prisoners would believe that the shadow of these artefacts is the truth (515C). These shadows depict the true nature of things for the prisoners.

Socrates argues that if one of the prisoners is released and is made to turn around to look at the light, he’d see the objects that cast the shadows are more real and truer than the shadows (515D). For example, the statue of a horse is the cause of the shadow of it in the first place. The statue is more real and truer than the shadow itself. Furthermore, if this prisoner is made to come out of the cave into the sunlight, he’d see the different objects as they are. Coming out the cave, the prisoner would be blinded by the light but would eventually adjust to be able to see the things as they are (516B). Extrapolating from the previous example, he would see a horse (the thing itself) instead of a statue or shadow of the horse. He would better understand the true nature of the objects that are in the world. Outside the cave, the prisoner would be able to see the sun in its place and realise that it is the cause of all things in the world (516C). The prisoner would understand that the sun was responsible for everything in the world that he had known or seen.

Socrates would argue that the prisoners are like any of us, as we are under a veil of ignorance, in the realm of shadows, and do not know the true nature of things. The visible realm is like the one of those of the prisoners and the light of the fire is the like the power of the sun. Like the prisoners are fettered in the cave, humans are fettered by ignorance in the visible realm. As the prisoner came out of the cave, humans in the visible realm have to move away from their ignorance and move towards the intelligible realm (517B). The intelligible realm would give knowledge of the true form of things. The sun outside the cave represents the form of the good, which is the cause of all in the visible and the intelligible realm (517C). It produces light and its source in the visible realm and also provides truth and understanding in the intelligible realm. Thus, the person outside the cave (in the intelligible realm) knows the true nature of things, the form of the good, whereas the person inside the cave merely sees a shadow or imitation of these things.

Socrates argues that education has to turn the soul towards this true forms of things (518D). He believes that the power to learn is already in everybody’s soul, but it has to be directed in the right way, namely the intelligible realm (518C). Education is responsible for directing the soul in this right direction. With the proper education, the soul can move away from ignorance in the visible realm to understand the true form of things in the intelligible realm. After this education, the rulers of the city would have the practical knowledge about ruling the city as well as the theoretical knowledge of the form of the good (520B). This knowledge is relevant for ruling the city as the ruler would have to know the true form of things – true form of justice and others – to govern the city properly. Thus, education of the ruler is responsible for directing him in thinking about the right things (theoretical i.e. the form of the good) and making him capable of carrying out actions (practical i.e. ruling the city) that are best for the whole city.

Socrates further argues that those who make it out of the cave need to be compelled to liberate the other prisoners from the cave. After attaining the loftiest knowledge, the rulers should come back and rule the city. The rulers have the knowledge of the form of the good (and other forms and their particulars) and they truly understand the true nature of things. They clearly know the difference between the shadows of things and the true nature of things. When ruling the city, they would see much better than most people and carry out actions that are just and best for the city (520A-D). Socrates argues that the city does not have to make any one person the happiest, rather has to spread happiness and pursue harmony amongst all the classes in the city (520A). The city has essentially produced the ruler after years of education and training. It is the responsibility of the rulers towards the city to bind the city together and not pursue his personal passions. Thus, it would be just for the city to compel the rulers to rule the city.


The Republic, Plato

The Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem as proposed by Phillipa Foot is a thought experiment that addresses the moral dilemma between choosing to kill 5 people and saving 1 person or choosing to kill 1 person and saving 5 people.Thomson further explains two versions of the problem, namely, the “switch” version and the “bridge” version and the moral difference between them. I will begin by first explaining the problem and its two variants as proposed by Thomson and then reply with my own argument.
The problem is as follows – suppose a trolley is moving on a track with a driver driving the trolley. The driver realises that there are 5 people working on the track the trolley is going on and the breaks have failed. The driver can turn right onto the other track, but 1 person is also working on that respective track. What should the driver do? Is it morally permissible to kill 1 person and save 5 people to maximise utility? (Thomson, 1397).

The “switch” version of the problem involves a bystander who has the control to change the trolley’s track using a switch (Thomson, 1397). If the bystander uses the switch, the trolley would change tracks and lead to the death of 1 person who is working onthe other track, whereas if the bystander chooses to not use the switch i.e. chooses to do nothing, the train would be on the same track leading to the death of 5 people working on the respective track. The “bridge” version of the problem involves a bystander and a fat man standing on a bridge under which the trolley shall pass (Thomson, 1409). The bystander can push the fat man in front of the train to stop the trolley from killing the 5 people ahead or choose to do nothing.

In the case of the “switch” version of the problem, if the bystander does not make the switch, he would letthe 5 people die and not kill them; but if he makes the switch he would killthe 1 person instead of lettingthe 5 die. By choosing to switch, the bystander would have the responsibility of killing rather than letting die(Thomson, 1398-1401). Thomson argues that the difference between killing and letting die is not enough to solve the moral difference that the problem poses and thus appeals to a Rights Theory (Thomson, 1404). She asserts her belief in the axiom that, Rights “trump” Utilities, and an infringement of rights is not morally permissible in any circumstance. She further argues for the “switch” version that it is morally permissible to make the switch since it maximises the utility of the system and noinfringement of rights takes place. She supports the argument that no infringement of rights is taking place by appealing to the means of killing and saving (Thomson, 1410).The means the bystander uses to save the 5 people i.e. changing the track of the trolley, itself does not infringe the dying person’s right to life. She also argues that the bystander is just changing the outcome of an already defined consequence; “The bystander who proceeds does not merely minimize the number of deaths which get caused: He minimizes the number of deaths which get caused by something that already threatens people, and that will cause deaths whatever the bystander does”(Thomson, 1408).

On the other hand, in the “bridge” version of the problem, according to Thompson, it is not morally permissible to push the fat man by any means, either by pushing him directly or indirectly (by wobbling the handrail that the fat man leans on), since the bystander would be infringing on the person’s right to life (Thomson, 1409-1411). The means used by the bystander to save the 5 people is the “action of pushing” the person and unlike the action of choosing to switch the track of the trolleyand this is a direct infringement of the person’s right to life. Thus, it is not morally permissible to kill the 1 person and save 5 people in the “bridge” version of the problem.

I believe that the utilitarian view of maximising the outcome from a given situation is valid but in the “bridge” version, it involves the infringement of a person’s right. So, the utilitarian argument fails to stand on moral ground. Thomson also mentions Kantian ideas and states that people cannot be treated as a mere means to reach an end (Thomson, 1401). The fat man cannot be treated as a mere mean to save the life of the other five. Furthermore, from a Contractualist point of view also, the bystander owes to the fat man what he equally owes to each of the other five (Ashford and Mulgan). Each person is a separate entity with a distinct moral obligation who has an equal right to live. Thus, a Contractualist argument is also consistent with the theory of rights. As a deontological argument considers, “If an act is not in accord with the Right, it may not be undertaken, no matter the Good that it might produce (including even a Good consisting of acts in accordance with the Right),” (Alexander and Moore) the “Right” being the decision that is in harmony with the moral norm and duty not to kill, the act of choosing to push and kill the fat man for maximising utility by saving 5 people would be morally impermissible. The moral duty to not kill the person complies with the Right and the utilitarian argument fails to stand ground.


Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “The Trolley Problem.” The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 94, No. 6 (May, 1985), pp. 1395-1415

Ashford, Elizabeth and Mulgan, Tim, "Contractualism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =

Alexander, Larry and Moore, Michael, "Deontological Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

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