Subjectivity

Paula Nunez de Villavicencio

Subjectivity is a term that refers to the individual perception or experience of reality.

Paula Nunez de Villavicencio is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on the historical and political dimensions of media technology used for the governance, subjectivation, and surveillance of select populations. Specifically, her work looks at optical media and their role in shaping human conduct in visual information systems. Paula is a SSHRC Doctoral Fellow and the co-author of the book, Prisonhouse of the Circuit: A Media Genealogy.

Colour or Greyscale: A photographer’s dilemma

The photographer is faced with a dilemma. Having recently been hired to photograph Kakapos (a species of large, flightless birds) in New Zealand for conservation purposes, they know that they are expected to submit colour photographs to their client. Their dilemma stems from the contrast between the objective truth that Kakapos are colourful birds, and the subjective truth that, to the photographer, the birds are an array of shades of grey.

The photographer has monochromacy, a condition in which retinal processing produces a visual experience with no colour, only shades of black, grey, and white. In the past, the photographer only published images in greyscale, to ensure that the result was a clear replication of how they saw the world. To the photographer, greyscale is the reality of the world, because of the ways that their rods and cones (the light-sensing receptors in the human retina) operate.

Similar to positionality, subjectivity refers to the reality experienced by the individual and how their perception of the world affects their approach to knowledge and objective truth. The photographer cannot identify the colour green, or any other colour for that matter, but they are aware that colours exist, and that, objectively, reality is a colourful thing. That Kakapos are colourful is considered an objective truth because an overwhelming majority of humans—and especially experts and the technologies deemed to produce repeatable truth—all agree that they have colourful plumage. The photographer’s individual experience of shades of grey is a subjective truth. By producing photographs in greyscale, the photographer invites others to experience reality from their perspective. If they submit the photographs as they were captured, developed, and edited, the photographer would have to rely on the objective truth produced by the technology and agreed upon by the general population. Yet this would not be their own truth.

Subjectivity is not repeatable, not reproducible in lab settings, and comes from individual experience. It is often conflated with bias or prejudice, both of which carry heavy and frequently negative connotations. Subjectivity, however, is more nuanced. It identifies the very personal experience individuals share with reality.

The dilemma of subjectivity is further exacerbated by the ways in which the photographer’s client might use and describe the images they receive. If the photos were used in a journalism piece about conservation efforts, skeptics might dismiss the article by arguing that the image shows a bias or a subjective position. Similarly, academic researchers might completely disregard the greyscale image, by arguing that demonstrating a subjective perspective of the colour of the animal lacks the objective (repeatable, technologically reproducible, expert-produced) truth necessary. In other words, the greyscale image indicates a dramatization or personal bias that skews expected, repeatable results. The photographer might be concerned that, by publishing these images in greyscale, they will be labelled a subjective representation of reality, and will not be acknowledged as truthful by experts in fields such as law, journalism, or science. As art, the photographs might be accepted in their subjectivity, but as representations of truth, they must be objective. In this dichotomy, objectivity refers not to the inherent quality of an object or people, but rather to an ethos or professional code for the representation of the world.

A first understanding of subjectivity is the individual perception or experience of reality that a person has. Now, if we bring in another person without monochromacy, and one who holds a position of power over the monochromatic photographer (such as their client), the meaning of subjectivity becomes even more nuanced. In this case, it also expresses how power relations produce subjectivity—that is, in the sense that an individual can be actively subject to someone else.

The photographer with monochromacy, who has always published images in greyscale, decides to continue with their practice and sends the conservation images in greyscale to their client. The client has their own perception of reality, including the subjective belief that the conservation images should be published in colour. They therefore contact the photographer and ask for colour images instead. The photographer reminds the client that they perceive the world in greyscale and have always produced images in greyscale to reflect their subjective experience. The client, while understanding, is insistent that the images for this project must be in colour, to produce a more persuasive publication and not to detract from the conservation organization’s desire to communicate ‘objective’ truth.

Recognizing that they are not in a position to challenge their client’s wishes (i.e., without potentially losing the contract), and that they are subject to the expectations of those in positions of power, the photographer alters their own expectations, and agrees to have the images produced in colour. To ensure that the final images of the Kakapos show the objective colours, the photographer asks experts in their field without monochromacy to review their work for validity, reliability, and reproducibility. Assured that the images are objectively correct, the photographer is able to meet the expectations of the client.

Subjectivity can thus refer to a range of notions: the individual perception of reality of a person; the negative connotations of bias, when considered in tandem with objectivity or truth; and an individual’s position in relation to something or someone else that affects their behaviour, attitudes, choices, or perceptions.

 

Discussion Questions

  • The concept of subjectivity is illustrated above using the example of a photographer with monochromacy in a power relationship with their client. Based on this interpretation, what are some examples of subjectivity that you have experienced?
  • When might the dichotomy between subjectivity and objectivity be detrimental to our understanding of the world?
  • Why do you think any of the above interpretations of subjectivity might be important? Consider biological, social, or cultural cases.

Exercise

Working in pairs, look at two copies of the same image—one in black and white and the other in colour. Ask each other to describe what you see differently in each image, and what might be visible in the black and white image that is not noticeable in the coloured version, or vice versa.

Additional Resources

Benjamin, W. (1972). A Short History of Photography. Screen (London), 13(1), 5–26. https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/13.1.5

Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2010). Objectivity (1. paperback ed). Zone Books.

Foucault, M. (1982). The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry, 8(4), 777–795.

Hayles, K. (2012). How we think: Digital media and contemporary technogenesis. The University of Chicago Press.

Parisi, L. (2019). The alien subject of AI. Subjectivity, 12(1), 27–48. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41286-018-00064-3

Rebughini, Paola. (2014). Subject, subjectivity, subjectivation. Sociopedia.Isa, 1–11.

Wiley, S. B. C., & Elam, J. (2018). Synthetic subjectivation: Technical media and the composition of posthuman subjects. Subjectivity, 11(3), 203–227. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41286-018-0055-0

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Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

https://doi.org/10.22215/stkt/np47

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