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Zsolt Bátori: The Relevance of Indexicality

After Post-Photography 3, European University, St. Petersburg, Russia, May 20, 2017.

ABSTRACT. In order to account for how we understand photographic images today we need to consider both the nature of the medium and the processes involved in the production, perception and interpretation of photographs. It is also desirable that our theory of photographic communication is embedded in a systematic and coherent theory of pictorial communication.


The theory of pictorial communication has advanced through various traditions, relying on diverse research methodologies. A long forgotten advancement in the philosophy of visual communication has been recently revived, suggesting that the theory of speech acts can be successfully extended and further developed for explaining the communicative processes involved in understanding and interpreting pictures and other visual phenomena. In my talk I first consider how the theory of pictorial illocutionary acts may explain the processes involved in interpreting photographic images. In this part of my talk I use photographic deception as an example, and I show how the theory of pictorial illocutionary acts may be extended specifically to photographic illocutionary acts. I explain how this theory accounts for various types of photographic deception, and also for interpreting photographic images as photographic images.


In the second part of the talk I argue that indexicality has a central role in the default interpretation of photographs even today, and even in case of digital and mobile photography. I also provide a systematic typology of cases (contexts) when the default photographic illocutionary act is modified, resulting in a new illocutionary act in which indexicality is no longer assumed. I show how the proposed account explains that in case of a photographic illocutionary act we interpret the image as a product of photographic processes, even with the added understanding of possible analogue or digital manipulation of the photographic image.


I argue that the default interpretation of photographs relies on our more or less precise knowledge about the difference between the ontological and epistemic status of photographic images on the one hand, and drawings, paintings, and other non-photographic images on the other hand. The typology of diverging interpretations (modified, non-photographic illocutionary acts), however, will not be based on technological advancements (e.g., analogue versus digital) but on our contextual knowledge of factors responsible for modifying the ontological and epistemic status of the image we consider.

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