Experiment: each photographer was given a different story about the person coming in for a portrait. Results varied widely when told the subject was fisherman, self-made millionaire, parolee, beach lifeguard, psychic, and so on.
Perhaps the same contextual framing and predisposition affects documentary projects, archival work, ethnographic field studies, or transposing a biographical sketch from one language to another for readers of a different culture or era. In other words, if the lens can stand for a perceptual grasp of a subject, then the same assumptions that these photographers baked into their choice of composition and lighting and shutter release also may reveal how one goes about engaging with the world in general: we prejudge people and settings, we view the world as half-empty instead of half-full, for example; or at the time of middle age we feel that so many opportunities remain, rather than feeling that so few days are left before extinction.
And while this portrait experiment misled the photographers who were doing their very best creative work to interpret the man, based on the sparse backstory provided, the end result of this decoy experiment powerfully demonstrates to journalists, archaeologists and other scientists (predisposed with the working theories or hypotheses they bake into their research design and deployment of available methods), philosophers and novelists, as well as social observers of all stripes that assumptions and prior knowledge frame one’s boundaries and the placement of one’s subject within that context.
By extension the frame we paint for our selves (presentation of self; self-image; concept of self) is colored by the assumptions we adopt, discover, aspire to, or have been given by others we know and have been labeled by society more generally.
Blurb: A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what’s in front of it. To prove this we invited six photographers to a portrait session with a twist. ‘Decoy’ is one of six experiments from The Lab, designed to shift creative thinking behind the lens. [November 2015]