The Observer Effect and Photography

Photographs are omnipresent in our daily lives. From social media and advertising to family photos hanging on your wall. Images are used for identification and as evidence, as well as informing us at a cultural level about who we are.

Photographs are both bookmarks and timestamps. When we want to see who we were, who we are, and how far we’ve come, our story can be told quite simply in a photographic history.

Photographs can also act to subjectively portray the world through an art context. We are presented with the ability to take photographs anytime, all the time, and most of us do! There’s a good chance there’s a camera in your pocket or on your table right now; your phone. We have replaced notetaking and manual documentation with the simple snap of a photo.

So what does it literally mean to ‘take’ a photograph? And what are the processes involved in the production of a photograph? What part does the photographer play at the quantum level? Is there an invisible dynamic at work between who is capturing and what is being captured?

I’m here to argue that on the quantum level, the presence of a photographer and camera alter the scene that is being viewed and photographed. This can be explained through the ‘observer effect’ on a social, physical, and philosophical level.

The Observer Effect

The ‘observer effect’ is most commonly linked to the realm of science, more specifically the field of quantum physics. This phenomenon refers to the idea that the very act of observing changes the way the world around us operates.

The famous double-slit experiment found that electrons shot through two slits and projected onto a photosensitive surface produced an interference pattern much like a wave. At the same time, when the electrons were observed, they produced a particle pattern (two lines). This experiment provided evidence for wave-particle duality – the idea that quantum objects can be both a wave and a particle dependent upon whether or not they are observed.

What this means is that the simple act of observation dictated how the electrons behaved.

Much like electrons at the quantum level, until we observe it (‘it’ being the subject that’s photographed), we don’t know what the outcome will be. The very act of observing the event changes the outcome.

A camera is a powerful tool; a tool whose sole purpose is to observe and record. Recall the common visual scenario of the oblivious individual and their sudden change in behavior when they realize they are being observed. The idea of being viewed can make anyone hyper-aware of their behavior, sometimes making them change the way they act completely. This phenomenon is most commonly referred to as “reactivity” in psychology.

For some, a camera is an excuse to perform, and for others, it’s a cue to hide. Either way, it’s undeniable that the sheer presence of camera and photographer alter the people who are aware of its presence. It calls into the validity of a double-blind experiment. This is the social layer to the observer effect.

A camera can be like a social shield, allowing the photographer to distance themselves from the scene, but it can also act as an excuse to participate and intervene in the scene such as in giving instructions to a model or bypassing someone’s personal space as a street photographer. Our worldviews are shaped by things such as the culture we are raised in, the language we speak, the race we are, and the gender we identify as. These differences can show up in what and how photographers choose to capture their subjects.

Photography on a Quantum Scale

Physically, there are so many different things happening at a quantum scale when a photo is captured. The camera in and of itself is like a double-slit experiment; a source of light shown through an opening and captured onto a photosensitive material. Those photons are captured on the sensor of the camera and are thus being absorbed or taken. In the act of taking a photograph, we are literally taking photons away from the scene.

On the same note, the photographer and camera are also adding light to the scene that is being captured. Of course, this light I speak of is not visible to us, but it is light nonetheless.

As stated in Kathryn Shaffer’s book titled What the What, “Light is produced any time that charged particles move back and forth, move erratically, or jump from one place to another.” By that definition, the charged particles that make up your body and are moved or accelerated when you yourself move or accelerate in any direction produce light.

Even if you were to stand still, the very act of being alive produces light in the form of heat.

The photographer, and the moving mechanics inside of the camera, produce a light of their own at the same time that the light is being ‘taken’ from the scene and interpreted by the camera. A photograph is both an additive and subtractive process of light. A dynamic push and pull.

Quantum field theory states that everything is connected, but not in a pseudoscience way of understanding connection. As context, the photographer and camera which occupy a location impact the physical space around them on a quantum scale. For example, everything that has mass has its own gravitational field associated with it. These fields, which are everywhere, are constantly vibrating and interacting with each other.

The photographer changes a scene on a gravitational, electromagnetic, sound, temperature, and light level.

You can think of the photographer as a disruptor to the field around them, constantly sending out waves that interact with other waves – much like a swimmer disrupts and displaces water as they move through it, creating and sending out the proverbial ripples in the water. This may not be obvious to the eye or even seen later in a printed image, but at a quantum level, these changes are measurable.

The Nature of Photographic Art

The French ready-made artist Marcel Duchamp famously said that art was completed by the viewer. Duchamp believed that before the art was observed, it didn’t exist,

“All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” —Marcel Duchamp in ‘The Creative Act

You could argue that a photograph both exists and does not exist until the moment it is observed much in the way that quantum objects can both exist and not exist simultaneously. A photograph, unlike other mediums such as painting, is often interpreted as evidence.

Take, for example, crime scene photography in a courtroom – they are often presented as an index, a record, proof of what was there. According to French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in Image Studies, a photograph has four “phases” if you will:

  1. The image is the reflection of a basic reality;
  2. The image masks and perverts a basic reality;
  3. The image masks the absence of a basic reality;
  4. The image bears no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

What is profound about image making is that a photograph can be both a direct representation of what it captured while also containing no sense of reality whatsoever (phase 1 vs phase 4). A photograph is undoubtedly linked to the scene that it captured while also having no relation to the scene at all. The camera is a device that can be used to create a photograph, but it is not limited to or defined by the presence of a camera, but instead, photography relies on light being permanently recorded onto a light-sensitive medium. Cameraless examples in photography include solarization, the rayograph, and the similar photogram process.

But what remains the same in all photographic mediums and techniques is its inherent indexicality. Semiotics and photography are closely intertwined, if not the same. The symbol wouldn’t exist without the meaning we bring to it. In other words, the symbol is expressed through the observer, and without the observer, the symbol would not only cease to exist, but there would be absolutely no need for it to exist because symbols only find meaning in what the observer brings to it.

This applies to art, language, religion, culture, etc, but not to the universe in general. Semiotics would not exist without the universe, but the universe exists without semiotics.

In Conclusion

The steps involved in taking a photograph provide a perfect metaphorical explanation of the ‘observer effect’ on a social, physical, and philosophical level. Although the very act of taking a photograph is not a study in quantum physics, metaphorically speaking it allows us to understand more easily the mystery of the observer effect on a quantum scale.

The idea of the photographer being removed from the scene because they are behind the camera holds no truth in this context.

At the social level, we are talking about the dynamic between the consciousness of the subject matter and the consciousness of the photographer. These fields of consciousness are interacting and overlapping with each other all the time. This dynamic can be overt or totally covert, but it is occurring nonetheless.

On a physical level, when a photographer sets up their tripod or raises their viewfinder to their eye, they are undeniably impacting the scene. The actual mechanical process of ‘taking’ the photograph is both an additive and subtractive transaction and measurable at the quantum level.

At the philosophical level, the observer effect only happens when there is an observer. Much like photography and art in general, it takes an observer to complete the work. But the difference between art and the quantum realm is that the quantum observer does not need to be a conscious one.

About the author: Max Depatie is a photographer and artist who is currently studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Depatie’s work on his website and Instagram.

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