What Is a Photograph?

A challenge, when coming home from a trip, is to decide what to convey to others and what to keep to oneself. Some of this isn’t a matter of choice; there are aspects of a trip that you can’t convey if you try. Or rather, in conveying it, you alter it a little. For instance, if you tell someone about wandering alone in a city, you have already changed that aloneness.

Also it isn’t always clear how many pictures people want to see, how many stories they want to hear, etc. One doesn’t want to try their patience. On the other hand, a well-told travel story, or a few well-chosen pictures, can bring something to others’ lives. I have vivid memories of other people’s visits to the Hebrides, South Dakota, Vaucluse, and other places.

When taking (and assembling) photos, I do not emphasize standard tourist sites, no matter how important. Hundreds, even thousands, of such photos already exist, and most are better than mine. My photographs are usually of places and things I found or noticed on my own (or with someone else).

Then there is the question of “outtakes.” After I select photos for a slideshow, after I put them all together, I find photos that I left out, photos every bit as beautiful, even more so, than the ones I included. In fact, it’s that second glance that brings back the trip. Why? Maybe because those “outtakes” hold the little diversions that are the soul of the trip. A dog running down a street; railway workers waiting for the train to pass; kids playing football in the school courtyard. Or maybe it’s something along the photo’s edge: a tail, a branch, a chair.

That leads to the title question: what is a photograph? It looks inward as well as outward; it says something about the photographer (or amateur picture-taker) as well as the external scene. But more than that, it conveys the relation of an instant: maybe a passing relation, maybe a lasting one, but a relation all the same. At its best, it is mutual; in a split second, you and the scene capture each other and let each other go. This happens rarely, but it happens.*

So here are two “outtake” slideshows, each with eighteen photos: one of Istanbul and one of my two-day biking trip in northern Hungary.

 

*A paraphrase of the ending of Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose.”

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    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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