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Davis Journal

Looking at the whole picture

Apr 15, 2022 10:12AM ● By Louise R. Shaw

There were two main photos of the Person of the Year that ran in TIME magazine – one a close-up of his face in front of a blank screen, another of him confidently striding across a stage in front of a colorful photo advertising one of his enterprises, with a microphone in one hand and the other waving above his head and a crowd of people in the audience each taking their own pictures of him.

Both photographs credited the photographer, as they should. 

One showed a face, the other told the story without any words, as photographs can.

This is a column about photography. And context. And how it’s important to keep the context in the photography.

I once attended a workshop on scrapbooking and believe it or not, at one point, the presenter got mad. How anything in any way related to scrapbooking could make anybody mad is hard to imagine, but it happened with this guy in this session. Don’t cut the background away from the person, he said, after describing how often he’d seen it happen. What is happening in the background is an important part of that person’s story, he said.

And I agree.

And it’s true in life too. So this just became a column about life and photography and context put together.

When I talk to my granddaughter about going to school, it isn’t just any old school experience she’s having and it certainly isn’t like the one I had when I was growing up.

She is going to middle school after having studied remotely for months, then moving with her family to a different state and going to a school where everyone wears masks so she had no idea what they looked like underneath. It’s no wonder she dreamed about her friends taking off their masks and not having faces. Add to that the fear of getting sick or of someone you love getting life-threateningly sick and you are looking at some serious stresses beyond those the rest of us faced when going to middle school. Knowing the context of her experience helps me understand more than what I might get from a quick answer about how she’s doing. Or the determined smile on her face.

We judge people in history not only for who they were but for what they dealt with when they were living. The photos of Abraham Lincoln’s weary face are telling, but the photos that include his wife and sons, or the advisors that presented every opinion for him to decide between, or the enslaved people whose lives changed forever with his actions, or the wounded soldiers he visited so often and felt responsible for, tell more.

Where he was in history affected what he had to do and therefore, it affects how we need to see him.

And that is true of us.

Life is impacted by what happens around us. The context we find ourselves in.

What do we look like in a pandemic? What do we do when there’s war?

The photo thing happened again with a woman honored in this month’s TIME magazine. The lead photo showed her before a blank screen, looking with conviction at the camera. The inside shot had her wearing a mask that said VOTE, standing in front of a sign that indicated she was in Michigan and supporting Biden.

And in a flash, we knew the when, the where, the who, the why. 

You can tell I’m a photojournalist. I believe a picture can tell a story.

And I also believe there is more to a person than the face. And more to life than the moment.

We need to look at it all.

Only then will we begin to understand.