Informing Contexts Week 2: A Question of Authenticity

This week we were asked to reflect on Barthes (1980:89) statement, the impact of viewing context on authenticity and representation and the relationship, if any, with our own practice.

“…in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation”. (Barthes, 1980,89)

My definitions:
Taken and made/processed by a specific person, in a particular location, of a scene and/or object/subject at or over a measurable period of time, using materials that are certified to be what their description says. There is a qualitative component to authenticity in respect of truthfulness and a quantitative component in respect of perceived value/worth, both being interrelated at times.
A depiction/visual description of a scene/object/subject that can be recognised by one or more others in some way. The term representative suggests something is an illustration or version of the type of the original and not necessarily the original itself. There is a qualitative component to representation in respect of recognisability and a quantitative component in respect of the amount of impact experienced by individual viewers.

There are degrees of authenticity and representation. For example, what is produced may partially authentic if one or more of the features is not as claimed/certified. Levels of representation may include a layer where some but not all features of the resultant product/image are recognisable.

The context for viewing the product/image can significantly influence interpretation and response. For example, invited to a gallery for the opening of an exhibition by an acclaimed artist the attendees may well expect genuine/authentic items that achieve exactly what the exhibition claims to do and for this to pay high prices.

In taking images for my project I am photographing what I find on beaches in situ, without touching or changing anything. I shoot from several angles and at times different camera settings as if forensically collecting original/authentic ‘evidence’ of where and in what state I found the object. This presumably is akin to the ‘evidential force’ and ‘testimony’ Barthes (1980,89) referred to. I then leave it, or move it to a different location to take more images, take it to a rubbish bin or take it home with the intention of doing something with it at a later time. Why do I do this? It seemed important when I set out to provide this ‘evidence’ of what can be found. With increased interest in the topic of waste I have noted on social media less interest in this ‘evidence’/authenticity of subject and location and more in the representation of the problem. Examples include huge bags of rubbish collected on beach cleans, sculptures made with the debris and collections mounted and framed illustrating specific types such as bottle tops.

I realise that I have been ‘describing’ through photographing the authentic and have also made representations which could be challenged as not authentic and perhaps untruthful (by experimenting with context, tools (bubbles and crystal ball) as well as digital processing). However a photograph can never be seen to be exactly as the image taken by the photographer and is dependent on “…a spectator to give the picture its signified meaning.” (Bate, 2016, 33). So perhaps it does not matter.

However, on reflection of course it does. Viewers want to know that something did exist and many will also be aware that staging/setting up a scene, cropping  and digitally enhancing images to serve the purpose of the message or storyline is possible an accommodate this knowledge in their responses. Their initial reactions on ‘seeing’ will most likely be to the photographer’s representation and not to the authentic image dependent on the coordinated snap of the internal workings of the camera used. Their questioning and challenging of authenticity will come second if indeed their wider knowledge and experience of the world leads them to do so.


Barthes, Roland & Howard, Richard. 2000. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.

Bate, David. 2016. Photography (2nd Ed.). London: Bloomsbury.

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