What we hear when we look: The (In)audibility of Photographs


If sight is the most vital sensation associated with photography, and touch is resonant with the medium’s tangibility, sound holds a less obvious call for consideration when we examine the sensory nature of the making and looking at a photograph. In his book The Pleasures of Good Photographs Gerry Badger highlights the broad capacity and potential for authorial voice, and the sound of that voice within an image, when he remarks that ‘photographs are silent, though they are not mute.’ When we refer to sound in photography or photographic language then, rather than focussing on sound recorded to accompany imagery, we might consider the value of its inaudibility to appreciate its volume.

We can begin to approach this idea by examining work that explores the silence of the medium itself.  When David Birkin produced his series Confessions between 2007 and 2009 he invited his subjects to make self-portraits alone with the camera, whilst revealing a personal secret that they had not previously disclosed. As Birkin explained in his introduction to the piece, ‘Each photograph’s exposure is determined by the length of time its subject chooses to speak.’

The function and purpose of the camera in this instance embodies more than a mechanical process. Physically the camera can never be more than this, but there is a link here between intention (both of the photographer, and his subjects) and the sound of the photograph. When initially looking at these images it is sound that we crave through a curiosity to hear the confessions. In the process of making, the subject trusted that the camera would keep their secret. The result is that the camera tells the secret in the only way it can, through the photograph, and it is in this that Birkin trusts. He is trying to volumise his own photographic voice; one that allows the photographs to say everything that speech cannot and does not. His work feels like a delicate yet potent balancing act, and here that balance strikes somewhere between secrecy and revelation, audibility and inaudibility. It is from this that the images gain their charge, their intensity, their richness.

We can see Birkin’s photographs acting as a vacuum for sound, a deliberately closed container of audible noise. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Theatres might be viewed on the opposite side of the same coin. Sugimoto’s longstanding series, which he began in 1978, involved the artist asking the question, ‘Suppose you shoot a whole movie in a single frame?’ Accordingly he would visit indoor and drive-in cinemas, open the shutter of his 5 x 4 at the start of the film and create a long exposure that lasted until the movie finished X hours later. The observer is left with a view of the theatre as one would expect, but in the centre of the frame is a luminous space where the film played in its entirety. We are aware that a very particular event existed in this image, but that it has been both encapsulated and visibly deleted in this wholly charged blank rectangle that remains for the viewer. There is no information that can be physically seen within the space anymore, yet there is nothing sparse about it.

The common conceptual factor of exposure duration between these two works is clear, but Sugimoto has photographed something that has a structured life of its own; a film begins and ends and it can be replayed if so desired. The confessions made in Birkin’s series are swallowed in these images, and a close resemblance to human experience is amplified because his subjects have an indexical presence that cannot be precisely repeated. Rather than being embedded within the photograph, like the secret metadata in Birkin’s images, the sound in Sugimoto’s photographs is expansive. A dichotomy exists between the lifespan of the film, and its sound and motion compressed into one frame. But the blankness shines from the photograph theatrically, like a window on a bright world, whilst still remaining silent.

A photograph might also gain vividness through its containment of sound where the exchange of dialogue between subjects appears integral, but is inherently denied. In his recent project Interrogations, Donald Weber gained access to interrogation rooms in Russia and Ukraine, and visualised the power of the State and the ‘standard practice’ of the police there. Weber describes his body of work as ‘a study of the gestures of power.’ We are aware that the interrogator is pressurising the accused for information, for communication, for sound. But there is a clear resistance to this, and it is essentially this opposition to the exchange of sound that causes the exertion of power and makes these photographs so compelling.

The effect of the silence of the photograph is that the noise and emotional intensity of the subject becomes louder. This is true whether they appear to be pleading, crying, talking, or equally if they are expressing no noise at all. Our emotional responses to the images are intensified because we are confronted with soundless raw vulnerability, the sight of human beings often at breaking point.

Finally, let us consider a piece of work that doesn’t necessarily hold sound as an influential element of its reading, but in which the photographer uses her own visual language, her visual sound, to cry into the photographs almost as if they were a bell jar. Lydia Goldblatt’s ongoing series Still Here is centred around a response to her elderly father’s mortality. Goldblatt states that the work, ‘engages with the constantly shifting nature of time, and the potential of photographs to open up the realm of experience via their poetic as well as indexical reality.’ The images contain a mixture of portraits of Goldblatt’s father and mother, amongst still lifes and close observations of the human form. The passing of time and the effects of nature are depicted beautifully through a diverse jigsaw of imagery – the capriciousness of water, a photograph of her father slumped in his chair followed by a bee in the same position, an age spot on the skin. The intimate images of body parts cause disorientation and sometimes confusion. They have immediacy, yet they seem endlessly exploratory.

These photographs feel like a desperate cry for someone to press stop, but also an effort to make oneself acquainted with an inescapable truth. They are full of longing and sensuality, but amongst all the noise and emotion that formulate the images, they have a voice that is quiet, which speaks in whispers and breaths. Here it is the photographer’s own visual language that is paramount to the success of the images. There is a specific way of seeing that is particular to Goldblatt, and the sound she makes seems to go through waves of volume, perhaps linked to her emotional responses, before emerging quietly within the photographs themselves. Here it is the photographer’s own sound that we inaudibly hear.

We might view images in relation to imperceptible sound from within the realms of photography itself, as with Birkin’s Confessions. We can look at it alternately in terms of the volume it speaks through Sugimoto’s Theatres. Weber’s Confessions offers a play on the denial of sound between the subjects themselves. And we can also value inaudibility through the life that photographers breathe into their pictures using their own visual language, as with Goldblatt’s Still Here.

Characteristically when we come to photography we are encouraged to ask, why am I making this picture? What am I trying to say? What is my language? Once we have begun to answer these questions and we are starting to navigate our own ways with and within photography, we might look to the medium and begin to ask, at what volume will I speak?

Minor White once said, ‘If we had no words perhaps we could understand one another better.’ There seems to be limitless possibility and power in silence, or inaudibility, through photography.