Does Photography Need Theory? 

A Vampire Squid (author unknown)

Theory is a form of exorcism, so writes Jean Baudrillard. It is catharsis — a driving out.

A driving out of distance in order to get as close as possible to the real; or better still, the French author states: “To wrest things from their condition, to force them into an overexistence which is incompatible with that of the real. Theory pays dearly for this with prophetic autodestruction.”

So in Baudrillard we are to take theory as a thing to come; perhaps the writing of the future, while bearing in mind that said theoretical prophecy will inevitably explode, become bitty, displaced, granular, incomprehensible to the senses, beyond the material, only symbolic, mystical. Theory will autodestruct and become magical.

Let us not forget that in the 1980s Baudrillard was the theorist of the end of historical progress. He wanted to push theory to its ends: if theory is to comment upon sacrifice, it should become sacrificial. If theory is to consider a particular object, it must become that object. If theory is to engage the photographic image, it must become the very image of the photographic.

I want to think about this using the conceptual framework in photography theory that distinguishes between reality and representation.1 To put it simply, photographs are not reality themselves; they have no direct claim to truth, to veracity, or to trustworthiness. They are representations: images that form a construction that we in turn largely misunderstand and call the world, as if it were a single coherent place that can be perceived and then documented. 

It is said that humans are creatures of signs, of things that stand in for other things. Think of how regularly we talk in metaphors. A metaphor is the referring to one object in order to describe another dissimilar one. “That man is a fox” (Wayne’s World). “That photograph is a ghost” (Derrida). If photographs are representations of reality, then their meanings are as divergent as the varying shades of fox hair, or the number of ghosts that haunt us. The photographic image, as Roland Barthes writes, is polysemic. A thing with multiple meanings.

The rejection of theory, or at least the suspicion towards it, is too often conflated with a dislike for technical writing. Certain people don't appreciate complex language. The poppycock, flapdoodle, tommyrot, cack, crap, balls, bullshit, tripe, twaddle, blathering, specious, fallacious, spurious, unsubstantiated, conjectural, tentative suggestion being, that culturally specific vocabularies are things best left to the vernacular chat of laypeople, or scientists. Local dialects are ok, science talk is ok, but art theory, no chance. That’s just bullshit. You can use the word “flapdoodle” on the street, or ‘tentative’ in a paper on cognitive neuroscience, but the vocabulary of photography theory is not allowed, met with suspicion. Here are three things a certain type of photography person has said to me on the subject of theory, in relation either to its use or its complexity.

Older white male photographer 1:

“I was there, it’s in the picture I tell you. The picture shows you the world.”

This person conflates the photograph with the world. He thinks the photograph is the world, rather than a representation of it. He was there at the “decisive moment”, found something in the world profound, and with his singular “genius eye”, caught it in a picture. So the story goes.  

Older white male photography critic 1:

I look at him in the eye, hoping I don’t become him. I am aware there is a risk of this becoming; I am aware of his old white blotchy skin; my own whiteness; of the workings of my white unconscious. I am aware of our shared masculinity; his refusal to see how he gazes upon a world formed by structural inequalities. I am aware of the site of privilege that is this conversation we are having. Two white men, again, talking about photography. He wants to get at reality, to show me it. I tell him that is a perceptual impossibility. (I’ll return to this later.) 

Old white male photography critic elaborates:

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years”, he splutters, and then referring to a senior woman in the photography community, he continues “and I just don’t think she knows what a good photograph is. It’s a question of taste. Of seeing things in the picture others can’t see.” 

This person uses the rhetoric of 30 years critiquing photographs as an unreconstructed anti-intellectual, in order to suggest to me in the same way that one of my late granddads might suggest I try and clear my overdraft, that I should “forget the theory”. Leave theory behind. Forget the overdraft. Clear it. Leave the overdraft behind. I don’t know whether what I do is theory, but I know I’ve definitely got a complex, rigorous overdraft. This male critic hates theory, and I think theory is the only thing, person or object that has ever really liked me.

For this reason and others too, theory haunts me. I don’t necessarily like it back, and I can’t very well haunt it back either. This male critic also reinforces the sort of patriarchy we see too often in photography. The genius he, refers to the lacklustre she. “She has no taste. She can’t see the things I can see.” In the same manner in which this critic doesn’t understand the difference between reality and representation, he doesn’t realise that gender is a social construct, or that patriarchy is a thing he pushes to the fore.

An unreconstructed sexist as well as an anti-intellectual, then. I hope I don’t become him. I hope it’s not too late.

Older white male photographer 2:

“I liked your essay Daniel, but why all the complex language?”
This person thinks that he should be able to understand everything I say. And that if he doesn’t understand some words I’ve used, it must be my fault for using them, rather than his problem for not being bothered to look them up in a dictionary, or have a read of the sources I’ve cited. This person is willing to look at new photographs, but can’t be bothered to learn new words.

This is because he thinks photography shows him the world, and the world is something he thinks he already knows, already understands. What could someone else possibly tell him about the world he doesn’t already know, this old white male photographer thinks.Theory forces me to accept I don’t understand everything and never will. It haunts me by blighting me. I am named after a disease; canker; mould; decay.

I think of my name as something that reminds me to continually open up to thinking. Like mould, I might grow in this way. The voices of these men, the various conversations I’ve had all speak to the politics of communication. They remind me of why I write. That I can only write for myself. They remind me of the fine line between theory and critique. Of the idea that, as Rita Felski has it in her book The Limits of Critique, ‘the negativity of critique is transmuted into a halo effect — an aura of rigour and probity that burnishes its dissident stance with a normative glow.’ I want to avoid these forms of normativity. The various glowing lights of the photographic image. Confront them, but avoid them as mistakes. Writing gives me the opportunity to do that.

When I write, I am not myself. I am not the blight; the canker; the mould. I dissent precisely against who I am.  

On Facebook, Richard Seymour writes, on the question of writing and understanding:

There are some things about which one should never feign omniscience, and one of them is what writing is for. You can feign omniscience about whether you love someone, or whether you'll ever vote for Donald Trump. These are acceptable omnisciences. But it isn't a good idea to assume, in advance of having thought about it, or tried it out, that writing should never be alienating -- on top of whatever else it might be. That would be to narrow the repertoire in an unwarranted way… [We should be] keeping open various writerly possibilities; writing as if there is value in opacity as much as clarity; as if there is flair in the baroque; as if people might just get something more than information from language…

If we can’t convince all photographers that they are “doing theory” already, and all they need to do in order to join in, is learn the meaning of some new words, we might be able to convince them, using the verified knowledge and vocabulary of a reputable scientist, that they literally live inside a theory anyway. That is to say, the way our senses construct the world around us. Because we only know this in the 'becoming' of theory (as a thing that in this case describes perception). This scientist, Donald D. Hoffman, even uses the word camera in his theory, attending to the idea that we might come to see photography as (a visual representation of) a construction (the world perceived), and that he can use it as a successful analogy to describe what he calls — in his 2011 essay The Construction of Visual Reality — the problem with the largely dominant 'camera theory of vision'.

Squid-eye thinking

Our eyes are designed much like a camera lens he says. “The eye has a lens, which focuses an image on the back of the eye, where there is a piece of tissue called the retina that contains 120 million photoreceptors and 200 million inter-neurons which undertake very sophisticated computational processing.” Contrastingly, the eye is also an example of unintelligent design: “the light goes through the lens and it has to go first through all the inter-neurons and blood vessels before it reaches the photoreceptors behind.” This is true of vertebrate eyes — animals with internal skeletons — but not true of cephalopod eyes. “Squids and octopuses have got it right.” Their eyes are mechanically better than ours. They glow, inwards.  

Hoffman writes that vision is a reality engine. In real time we are creating all the colours, objects, textures, motions and spaces that we see. We’re not just taking a snapshot of the world around us, but creating the reality that we experience. Hoffman goes further, suggesting that human perception is configured precisely to avoid us seeing the truth (see Chetan Prakash's 'Fitness-Beats-Truth' theorem for more on this). In his interface theory, he states that our perceptions are an interface between us and an objective world. We usually think of perceptions as being useful because they are telling us the truth about the world. For example, you can see the bus coming, so don’t step out into the road. This is a useful perception, but it doesn’t make the bus entirely true. Why?

Imagine a computer desktop. The folder icon is not a real folder, but a metaphorical icon on your virtual desktop. Hoffman writes, “We don’t take the folder literally, because we know it is not real, but we do take it seriously because we don’t want to lose our files.” Like the computer desktop, Hoffman says that we see the world as an interface, and that this interface guides human behaviours so we can “get done what we need to do”. For example, go shopping in Oxford Circus and not get hit by a bus. He writes, the idea about perception is that “space and time is a species specific desktop. We take the bus in the road seriously, but we shouldn’t take it literally. What we call physical objects are the icons on our perceptual desktops. To ask whether they are real or not is to make the same mistake as to ask whether the virtual folder on our computer desktop is real.”2 

We might say the same about photography. Our perceptions did not evolve to see the truth, but rather to hide the truth. It is not objective reality as constituted by the truth which tells us not to walk out in front of the bus, but the reality engine as constituted by a constructed interface which focuses our senses on the bus, not on all the other matter that surrounds it, so that we might continue to live. Hoffman writes, “spacetime, our physical world is not the truth. The human species has evolved to not see the truth.” In cognitive neuroscience this is called the ‘fiction of physical causality’.

If our perceptions offer us a world that is causally fictional, that sort of puts to rest the discussion about whether photography is documentary or fiction, right? Or at least, I think it means we know we’re asking the wrong question. If reality is a fictional engine, then a so-called documentary photograph is an index, a trace of a fictional sensory construction. Photography is a representation of a fiction. Or, a fiction of a fiction.

Theory mediates the space between reality as a perceptual construction according to cognitive neuroscience, and photography as the cultural production of visual representations bound to fictionality. So, what are we taking a picture of when we photograph the world, or rather, when we photograph this reality engine? It certainly isn’t reality in a fixed and coherent sense. We have constructed a social world that can be photographed, but that photograph is only ever going to be a representation of a construction. A still from a roll of film we’ve already invented as an elaborate fiction.

Cognitive neuroscience gives me hope because when these ideas are popularised, we might finally come to see the world as a construction and therefore something that can be changed at our collective will. To evoke bell hooks, we are not bound to profiteering white supremacist patriarchal neoliberalism. If we want to make a new construction of the world which we henceforth call reality, we can. Reality is merely a process of naming that which we have constructed. Reality is what we call sensory experience, and if we want to make a new reality we need to learn new words. The wrong process of naming blights us.

Elizabeth Grosz calls the space between the material and the immaterial, the bodily and the bodiless, the incorporeal – or incorporeal materialism. This is a space in flux; a space which articulates the gaping hole between, as Grosz writes, “the framing conditions of materiality that cannot themselves be material”. It strikes me that theory, indeed Elizabeth Grosz’s theory of incorporeal materialism, occupies that gap. I want also to call the gap of photography theory a form of magic. Magic frames the material world but is not itself material. Magic, spirituality, mysticism, occultation, esoteric cultures draw attention to reality as a construction. They create elaborate metaphors and fictions in order to bring us closer to the ‘real’, but when we get there, a resistance of the symbolic order occurs. Theory can only take us so far, and then we need a thing called practice, which is neccesarily political.

If this practice (photography) is a construction it is not then a representation of reality, but a hyperreality3 which resists any form of symbolism. Arguably, photography has always been hyperreal, as it is widespread that when viewing the photographic image human consciousness cannot entirely distinguish between its “reality” from its wont to simulate.   The camera theory of vision is a cognitive neuroscientific theory of perception that helps us understand the identity of the photographic image as a type of constructed magic.

I think this shows us that we can’t learn without theory; that all human cultures have theorised their own futures before living them. Scientists did it with the end of diverse planetary ecologies. Marx did it with the end of capitalism. Both these things we are arguably living through now. This places theory at the centre of life, and as an important part of education. Theory is not something to be suspicious of, but rather something that embodies the practice of perception, of living.

To return to Baudrillard, it writes the future. Theory is a prophesy which exorcises. What does it exorcise? What ghost does it evacuate? The very thing photography theory exorcises is truth. Truth is an image, which is to say, a representation. Theory is an exorcism, the results of which are still to come. The future we want is not here yet. Theory has not yet been put into practice. When we are able to practice, to construct, a world in which everyone is happy and equal, then we won’t need theory anymore. Photographs bring us closer to understanding the world as a series of simulations. Causal computational fictions, networked and distributed.


1. See David Bate’s Photography: The Key Concepts, Bloomsbury, 2016, for a clear introduction to these ideas.
2. Donald D. Hoffman, The Case Against Reality: How evolution hid the truth from out eyes, Allen Lane, 2019. 
3. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, 1994.

This essay was originally developed as a public presentation for festival of photography, for which I was asked to respond to the question that is its title.