What a Photograph Cannot Do
March 26th, 2017 by David LaBelle

Four views of Frank, from left: The cheerful Frank I see most mornings. He talks about a former girlfriend, an Italian woman. Frank grows more serious as he explains how he came to Italy via Morocco and lost his passport. He sleeps on the streets and, at 66, is losing hope of ever leaving Italy or being able to get a job. “All I want is a simple life—a room to stay in and to live,” he offers. He has been stuck in Italy for 32 years with no hope of ever leaving or changing his existence. He says he cares deeply about me … and that we are both crazy.

I have written about what photography means to me and how it helps us cope and heal from traumas. But for all of the wonderful things photographs can do, they have limits—things they cannot do.
How often have we heard, and maybe even said, a photograph “captured” an individual’s spirit or character?

I feel like that trite expression is grossly inaccurate.

Last year I wrote a column, “I am not Richard Avedon,” confessing my inability to share painful or revealing photos of subjects without their blessing, however honest the images might be.

Space would not allow me then to elaborate on another acute realization: No single photograph—even the best ones made by the best photographers—can capture a person’s spirit any more than a mirror can capture the essence of our complicated selves.

No human is one thing, one way, all the time. We laugh, we cry, we are happy and we are sad. Between these extreme passions are myriad subtle feelings and expressions—each a tiny blinking star in a vast galaxy of emotion, each a fragment of the fleshly paint of an immortal soul.

We humans are far too complicated to be captured on film or a digital sensor. As with photographing the wind, we can only hope to capture shadowy glimpses of the spirit.

When people ask me how I am doing, I often tease, “I am fine, as long as I stay away from a mirror.”

Though this is meant to evoke a laugh, there is deep truth in what I am saying. Who I see in a mirror does not look at all like the real, intimate, internal, invisible, eternal me—at least not what I feel in my spirit.

This does not minimize the power of a good photograph or work of art. On the contrary, a photograph can trigger or awaken emotions within—sort of heirlooms to memories—that remind us or connect us to meaningful moments in our lives.

Some portraits—whether made with camera or paintbrush—offer clues about the subject’s inward person, granting us a peek at their soul.

But portraits shared publicly have context. When possible, multiple images are published to give a greater range of emotion and expression.

For me, seeing a single portrait of a person is a little like watching the tip of a snake’s tail going down a gopher hole and saying I saw the snake. I prefer to study multiple images of a person from one sitting or shoot to assemble a more complete profile.

Like it or not, we make judgments about people often based on a single image, without knowing the context of the photograph. What was the circumstance, the climate of the photo shoot? What was the question? What was the facial expression in response to?

One of the exercises I use with my students is to have them shoot a self-portrait. Then I ask other students to tell the class how they see and feel about the person.

I miss those days when publications printed a panel of portrait images from a sitting. Each individual photograph offered a different expression, like a piece to a jigsaw puzzle or mosaic, that contributed to the overall beauty of the person’s spirit and character.


David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.