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  • Welcome to ALT Magazine & Press: Hazawi Prize Announces 2023 Shortlist: (Sana'a, Yemen) - The shortlist for the 2023 Hazawi Prize for Yemeni Literature has been revealed, announcing the ten writers who have been selected as finalists for this prestigious award.
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Revealing the Layers: A Critical Review of Pierre Taminiaux’s The Paradox of Photography


Hatem Al-Shamea

Assistant Professor of English Literature

University of Reading, UK.



In his expansive 2009 work The Paradox of Photography, philosopher and aesthetics scholar Pierre Taminiaux explores the multilayered and seemingly contradictory nature of photography as a medium. Weaving together philosophical inquiry with close visual analyses, Taminiaux’s study delves into the ontological, phenomenological, and epistemological dimensions of photography, uncovering the diverse tensions, paradoxes, and revelations that emerge from images fixed through the camera’s lens. Through 224 pages of densely layered discussion, Taminiaux argues that the photographic image encapsulates an intricate temporal dance between movement and pause, presence and absence, contingency and deliberation, reality and artifice. Untangling and illuminating the medium’s paradoxes, he suggests, allows us to grasp photography’s deeper revelations about time, memory, aesthetics, and our perceptions of the world.

In this extended critical review, I provide a comprehensive overview of the key questions, themes, and lines of inquiry Taminiaux pursues in The Paradox of Photography. I summarize his discussions of photography’s ontology as an indexical trace, its relationship to vision and visuality, its capacities for revealing and concealing the real, its existential and phenomenological dimensions. I analyze Taminiaux’s examination of photography as both a truth-telling medium and a contrived artifice, his contrast between analogue and digital forms, and his insights on temporality and memory in the photographic image. I assess strengths of Taminiaux’s multilayered analysis and philosophical approach, while also noting limitations of the work’s narrow focus on fine art photography within a Western tradition. Ultimately, I argue that The Paradox of Photography provides a rich and probing philosophical exploration of photography’s primal power to freeze time, standardize vision, fragment reality, and reveal the uncanniness of the ordinary.

Taminiaux on Photography’s Ontology and indexicality

Taminiaux grounds his study of photography’s paradoxical qualities in an examination of the medium’s essential ontology as an indexical sign: its status as a direct physical trace of its referent. He analyzes key ontological aspects of the photographic image including its causal connection to the real, its basis in light’s interaction with material surfaces, its analogue continuity with what was framed through the lens at a specific moment in time (Taminiaux, 2009, p.3). Taminiaux contends this indexical relationship to the photographed scene is the source of photography’s perceived veracity and power as a documentary form.

Yet Taminiaux also complicates assumptions about photographic truth, delving into signs of time’s passage and unconscious elements embedded in the index. He surfaces the gaps between the photographed moment and the contingency of later observation, underscoring that “photographs bear the perceptible mark of the there then rather than the imperceptible mark of the having been there” (Taminiaux, 2009, p. 32). Even as photographs reveal, they simultaneously conceal and omit elements outside the framed instant.

Photography and Theories of Vision and Visuality

Expanding his ontological analysis, Taminiaux explores the intersections of photography with theories and philosophies of vision and visuality. He surfaces contrasts in visual perception between the camera’s mechanical gaze and the lived experience of embodied human sight. Taminiaux provocatively suggests the photographic apparatus may “see” more than the human eye, capturing what is imperceptible to the photographer at the moment of shooting (Taminiaux, 2009, p. 53). Yet photographs also risk reducing the visible world into standardized, commodified images as critiqued by Walter Benjamin and postmodern theory. 

Taminiaux further reflects on photography’s roots within traditions of Western linear perspective, positioning the medium as extending culturally constructed ways of seeing (Taminiaux, 2009, p. 165). He contends with the power dynamics of the gaze in photography, questioning the viewer-subject relationship encoded in visualizing and objectifying the world through the lens. Ultimately Taminiaux calls for “critical attentiveness” (2009, p. 104) in consuming photographic images shaped by institutional forces and regimes of perception.

Photography as Revelation and Concealment of the Real

A central paradox Taminiaux explores is photography’s simultaneous ability to reveal and conceal reality through the limited temporal slice framed in the visual instant. He surfaces this tension through close analysis of works by Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and other canonical photographers who aim to capture elusive moments of dramatic import or heightened perceptual awareness. Taminiaux suggests the photographic image offers profound revelations precisely by isolating and freezing specific instants of collision between conscious observation and the flux of the external world (Taminiaux, 2009, p. 133).

Yet Taminiaux argues just as photographs provide windows onto slivers of the real, they intrinsically conceal and omit adjacent spaces and times existing just outside the visual field. Interested photographers make deliberate choices to capture charged “decisive moments” over more banal durations, further engaging in subsequent framing and editing. For Taminiaux, grappling with photography’s capacities for both revelation and concealment provides insight into relationships between part and whole, presence and absence, contingency and deliberately in pictorial representations of reality (Taminiaux, 2009, p. 157).

The Existential and Phenomenological Dimensions of Photography

In later chapters, Taminiaux expands focus to the subjective, existential aspects of photography, positioning the medium as an extension of individual psychological interiority and self-understanding. He explores how photographic practices reflect an attempt to materialize personal memories, desires, fears, and perceptions of mortality onto an enduring external artifact. Taminiaux provocatively suggests that far from simply documenting, “the picture asks questions of the spectator” (Taminiaux, 2009, p. 171), sparking unnerving confrontations with the uncanniness of one’s own existence.

Drawing from Sartre and phenomenology, Taminiaux conceives of the act of photographing as one of objectification, using the camera to secure presence and meaning amid the instability of lived experience. Yet this existential function remains in tension with photography’s mechanical origins and basis in chemical and digital technologies of reproduction. Taminiaux ultimately reads photography as both a tool for phenomenological questioning and a means of disembodied technological production.

The Truth-Telling Photograph and Artifice of the Image

A recurring paradox Taminiaux probes is the simultaneous perception of photography as a truth-telling medium and as an artifice filled with deception and contrivance. He notes expectations of photography’s veracity rooted in its indexical ontology, which imbues images with a sense of capturing fragments of the real world intact. Yet Taminiaux also reveals the layers of subjectivity, intervention, and artificiality inevitably occurring in photographic practices of shooting, developing, selecting, and framing.

Taminiaux highlights the constructedness underlying all photographic representation. Choices in lighting techniques, depth of field, angle, and cropping all contribute to an image’s stylistic expressivity, undermining perceptions of neutral documentation (Taminiaux, 2009, p. 63). Even absent overt manipulation, photographs remain limited translations, reductions of far more complex empirical realities into the restricted two-dimensional space of the print or negative. For Taminiaux, grasping photography as both a truth-telling medium and highly constructed artifice provides insight into wider tensions between representation and reality.

Analogue vs. Digital Photography

Intriguingly, Taminiaux’s study also compares emerging digital photography to traditional analogue techniques from philosophical and aesthetic perspectives. He argues that analogue’s indexical relationship to the photographed moment is compromised by digital practices of fragmentation, manipulation, storage, and circulation. In digitization, “photography surrenders its ontological privilege” (Taminiaux, 2009, p. 44) as a trace of the real, instead becoming encoded data infinitely pliable and erasable.

However, Taminiaux is not wholly critical of this loss of indexicality, suggesting digital photography aligns with postmodern sensibilities more attuned to multiplicity, fragmentation, and instability of meaning. Further, digital practices facilitate novel forms of collaboration between viewer and image, completed through networked transmission, editing, remixing, and other modes of participatory interaction inconceivable during analogue photography’s peak. Taminiaux’s analysis provides rare philosophical insight into shifting photographic ontologies in the wake of digital technologies.

Photography’s Relationship to Time and Memory

A final core theme Taminiaux explores is the complex interplay between photography, temporality, and memory. He suggests the primary function of the photograph is to seize and fix ephemeral moments in time, creating a record that endures into the future. In photographs, “time stands still” (Taminiaux, 2009, p. 26) as motion and duration collapse into the permanence of the printed image. For Taminiaux, this explains much of photography’s existential appeal as a tool to counter human transience and the loss of passing time.

Yet even as they preserve moments, photographs also foreground the past’s irrecoverability, the distance between the image and the contingent moment it captures. Photographs serve as reminders of what has already vanished, relics charged with melancholy and nostalgia for the irredeemable past. Taminiaux ultimately conceives of the photograph as both an instrument to solidify time and memory and a signifier of their inevitable erosion, suggesting this temporal paradox lies at the heart of photography’s distinctive ontology.


Taminiaux, P. (2009). The Paradox of Photography. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

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