In 1996 I was living in Brixton, south London, during a very hot summer. On July 12 Nelson Mandela came to visit and the crowds turned out to greet him in the thousands. I had been active in the anti-apartheid movement and gathered with some friends opposite the main sports hall where Mandela was due to arrive and address some local dignitaries. As Mandela and his entourage approached the steps of the hall the crowd was ecstatic. I had never seen such emotion and tears of joy. Mandela stood before us. He waved, smiled and then disappeared with the throng around him into the hall. We had waited hours to see him, and in a very real sense many people there had waited decades to see him. So actually setting eyes on the man was intense, to say the least.

The next morning over breakfast my friends and I bought all the daily newspapers to read the coverage. My girlfriend at the time suddenly asked: “Did any of you see Prince Charles yesterday?!” None of us had. She held up one of the newspapers carrying a large photo of the scene on the steps. Yes, there was Prince Charles, the sheepishly grinning dauphin, just behind and to the right of Nelson Mandela. Why had we not seen him? A friend suggested it was because none of us wanted to see him and somehow we had all erased him from our experience and memories. Symbolically, British monarchy and Mandela were contradictions that just didn’t add up for us and would have ruined the day. So, we had taken from the event what we had really wanted to take from it. I don’t have that newspaper but you can see a very similar image here:

Clearly we don’t see or look the way cameras do. What we see is informed by experience, desire, ideology and expectation. Moreover what we see is governed by processes that are substantially unconscious. In fact my girlfriend suggested that our total blanking of Prince Charles was one of the few occasions on which we could be genuinely proud of our unconscious! The photo of course, could not blank Prince Charles but I’ve no doubt that, similarly, some people looking at it in the newspaper would have not noticed his presence if they had not wanted to.

That’s an extreme example of ‘motivated’ seeing but to a greater or lesser extent we are all doing this all the time. We can’t avoid doing it. If photographs offer more than we want from them, and they offer it in ways that strike us as mechanical and less prone to subjectivity than we are, then the whole dynamic of looking at photographs becomes somewhat fraught. Speedy consumption is a way of avoiding the anxious stand-off between how we look at the world and how the camera looks at the world.

Currently Jacques Rancière is read widely by the critically engaged parts of the photography and art worlds. His writings have proved to be highly stimulating, provocative, even ‘useful’ for their consideration of the relation of aesthetics to politics and agency. Most of the time Rancière remains quite unspecific, leaving us readers to move as we see fit from his general argument or point to a particular example that may come to mind. When Rancière does talk about particular images I often wonder if he’s really looking at the same things I am looking at, or in the same way. In a now notorious instance to be found in his recent book The Emancipated Spectator, Rancière discusses one of Martha Rosler’s Vietnam-era photomontages from her series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Back Home (1967-72). You can see a reproduction of it here:

Rancière notes that “in the middle of a clear and spacious apartment, a Vietnamese man holding a dead child in his arms. The dead child was the intolerable reality concealed by comfortable American existence…”

Well, I see a woman carrying a living child, and Rosler was making the montages from reportage and advertising images found in the same magazines. Recently an artist friend of mine saw Rancière give a talk on a video by Woody Vasulka. One of the clips in Vasulka’s montage was of an Atom-bomb explosion. Cacti and Joshua trees were prominently silhouetted in the foreground but Rancière kept referring to the "image of Hiroshima".

I certainly don’t want to single out Rancière as a unique offender and obviously his contributions far outweigh his slips. But our photographic discourse is full of such slips, and I’ve no doubt made many myself. Nevertheless we ought to face the awkward question of whether the contributions and the slips are related, even inseparable at a deeper level not just of competence in writing, but looking and thinking about a medium so vast in its generality, so open in its optics, and yet so specific in its details. When you ‘look for’ something in photography, the more determined you are to see it, the greater your chance of seeing it. Even if it’s not there. And if you don't want to see something, you often won't. Then there’s the lazy or hasty reading. Since most of the photographic images we see around us expect to be consumed rapidly we are often tempted to look and draw conclusions at speed. Slow looking becomes an anxious or perverse demand. I have always been struck by this passage from Victor Burgin’s 1980 essay ‘Photography, Phantasy, Function’:

To look at a photograph beyond a certain period of time is to become frustrated: the image which on first looking gave pleasure by degrees becomes a veil behind which we now desire to see. To remain too long with a single photograph is to lose the imaginary command of the look, to relinquish it to that absent other to whom it belongs by right: the camera. The image now no longer receives our look, reassuring us of our founding centrality, it rather, as it were, avoids our gaze. In photography one image does not succeed another in the manner of cinema. As alienation intrudes into our captation by the still image, we can only regain the imaginary, and reinvest our looking with authority, by averting our gaze, redirecting it to another image elsewhere. It is therefore not an arbitrary fact that photographs are deployed so that, almost invariably, another photograph is always already in position to receive the displaced look.

The psychoanalytic terms (the gaze, the imaginary, captation) were relatively new to the discussion of looking at photographs but Burgin describes the familiar experience of a visual culture dominated by the photographic image as distractive spectacle. Photographs are exhausted and discarded well before we have the chance to come into a reflective relationship with them. That is the condition and purpose of the vast majority of photographs presented to us: their meanings are meant to be obvious and formulaic and if there is sustained interest in any particular one it is unpredictable.

But is this distractive gaze simply a matter of cultural habit? That for generations the ubiquitous visual culture to which photography gave rise has been a continuous stream of largely dispensable images? Do we not look at photographs for very long because we do not expect to, because we are not encouraged to? Did the popular press, advertising, cinema, television, the internet or even art’s compulsively serial use of photographs negate the long look? Or were deficiencies there from the start, built into the photograph’s very structure? Is it the coldness of its optics, perhaps? Does its surface fail to hold the gaze? Do its perceived limitations of time and place frustrate extended reflection? For Burgin at least, the position was clear enough: there is something about photographic images that precludes the long look, “therefore” (his word) they are deployed in number and the look is displaced.

There will always be a mismatch between the unconscious and the industrial mechanism of camera vision.