Amateur photographer explores the philosophical world of photography

A picture is a representation that can take the form of a painting, a drawing or a photograph.  Have you ever thought of why both photographs and “handmade images” like paintings belong to the family of pictures, and are capable of portraying exactly the same scene or object, but the two bring totally different impressions?  Prof Mikael Pettersson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and a recipient of the RGC Competitive Grants Award 2018, will initiate a research project titled “Philosophical Perspectives on Photography” with a funding of HK$170,000 under the Early Career Scheme of the Research Grants Council.


Prof Pettersson, an amateur photographer, started to develop an interest in photography when receiving a camera from a friend.  “It’s difficult to give a general definition of ‘photography’.  Most people would regard it as a technology for making images, which, in contrast to ‘handmade images’, is in some relevant sense ‘automatic’ or ‘mechanical’,” he said, roughly distinguishing the two.  More precisely, he describes photography as embedding “causal stories as to how an image is formed” while the interpretation of “handmade images” to a larger extent involves “grasping the intentions of the picture-maker”.  This brings an interesting philosophical reflection on the famous English idiom “a picture is worth a thousand words”.  “I think what the famed American philosopher Donald Davidson said is right — a picture is not worth a thousand words, or any other number; words are the wrong currency to exchange for a picture.  Our interpretation and understanding of pictures are very different from how we go about interpreting language,” he explained.


To Prof Pettersson, photographs are much more than simply delineating causal stories.  He has no doubt that photography is important to daily lives, not to mention the boom of “ordinary” photos on sharing life moments uploaded to social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram every day.  “In addition to ideas on our friends’ breakfasts and dates, photography gives us a wide spectrum of epistemic uses.  Good examples are X-ray images and ultra-sound images that enable us to learn things that our naked eyes cannot see, say the look of an unborn child in the womb.  Although they make use of radiation and sound which differ from ‘ordinary’ photos, they still share the ‘automatic’ manner with photography that I mentioned earlier,” he said, with more examples on how photography provides knowledge, such as surveillance footages for solving crimes and product shots for enriching online shopping experience.


According to Prof Pettersson, morality of photography is the philosophical field that is kind of under-developed in the extant literature and this is an area he hopes to contribute via the funded research project.  Regarding the controversies brought about by posting morally-challenging photos to social media platforms, he thinks there exists at least two streams of thoughts.  “On the one hand, due to its ‘mechanical’ nature, photography merely registers what was there for everyone to see, so what can be wrong by taking morally questionable photos?  On the other hand, there are simply things that aren’t good if they’re shown and even if one just captures how they look,” he pointed out.  Prof Pettersson thinks it is an evaluation on a case-by-case basis which depends on the circumstances and one’s moral convictions.


Through addressing topics that the traditional theories have largely neglected, Prof Pettersson intends to discuss what photography is, what meaning photographs have, and what ethical considerations one may have in relation to various photographic practices.  Not only is he interested in observing “still” images, but he has recently started to work on cinema, i.e. “moving” images, as well which he believes can add new excitement and insights to his research journey.