The 'Movement of Doubt' in Drone Photography. In: Towards Technosophy (2022)
How could the blurriness spread throughout the picture? Why like that?
Is the camera hanging on a twisted rope?
Why does the circle become oval?
Where is the centre of rotation?
Why is the sharpness at the bottom left?
Is the leaf falling or is the camera falling?
Is the camera surfing this wave?
In drone photography, I am an amateur. Not in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu, where amateurs create a social distinction for themselves with specialised technical knowledge.1) Nor in the sense of Vilém Flusser, where amateurs in “post-industrial opium dens become intoxicated with apparatus structural complexities”. 2) But perhaps in the sense of Roland Barthes’ La chambre claire, where an amateur accidentally finds photographic truth.3)
What truth? For Barthes, photographic truth lies before the lens of the camera, in a historical event whose trace of light can be preserved in photography. This plea for photographic indexicality did not convince Flusser, especially since the evidential power of photography has always been very low. Flusser saw Barthes’ bright chamber as a black box determined by obscure programmes. Whoever operates the black box becomes a functionary of the programmes and produces the redundant images that make up what Susan Sontag called our entire “photographic image culture”.4)
Flusser contrasted people who take snapshots (Knipser) with artistically ambitious photographers who try to play with the apparatus against its inherent programmes. Susan Sontag had already claimed that the camera is used as a toy in Western industrialised countries.5) Unlike tools and machines, it does not produce anything that can be eaten or materially consumed. And like all other apparatuses, this toy only produces entropic information. So as an amateur, I should be able to play this game, but if I want to be a photographer, I must also act against the programmes of the apparatuses. For according to Flusser, only the real challenge for photographers is to produce those informative images that are unlikely in the programmes of the black boxes. But don’t I need specialised technical knowledge for that? And what protects me from simply becoming intoxicated with the apparatus’ structural complexities? The answer for Flusser is: philosophy.
For Flusser, photographers are at the same time philosophers because they understand the gesture of photographing as “a movement of doubt”.6) For this is “a philosophical gesture par excellence”.7) But can the three aspects Flusser uses to describe the gesture of photographing still apply to my playing with a flying camera?
“A first aspect is the search for a place, a position from which to observe the situation. A second aspect is the manipulating of the situation, adapting it to the chosen position. The third aspect concerns critical distance that makes it possible to see the success or failure of this adaptation.”8)
The step-by-step circumnavigation of a photographic object, which Flusser describes as a philosophical search for the appropriate location, is never consummated with the drone. The overwhelming amount of possible locations allows for every perspective of future images - and none are particularly desirable. There are general photographic notions, such as the view from above, over the roof, out from behind the tree, etc., but they are no longer imaginable as images. The enormous increase in possible locations makes any individual one relatively worthless. The search for a position has become permanent.
This also affects the amount of pictures. My drone can take single pictures, it has an extra button for snapshots. But because there is no material limit to the number of pictures, as many as possible are collected for later evaluation and selection. In drone photography, the gesture of taking pictures has almost completely shifted to seeking interesting images in a digital sequence, which you watch afterwards on the screen of a computer.
This has this effect on my relationship to the drone: The further the drone moves away from me, the more I lose the critical distance from the possible photographic objects. But in subsequent post-production on the computer, every detail is very close to me. My photographic doubt now serves to seek out an image that stands out from the crowd of colourful and sharp pictures and retroactively gives meaning to the shooting process.
So I look for images in which the drone manipulates the situation of the shot or is manipulated by it.9) I choose a sequence in which a gust of wind blows my drone into the branches of a tree. What movements did the apparatus make to create these unpredictable images? The blurriness in the images sometimes suggests a circular motion, which I could have created by hanging an apparatus by a thread. However, the drone has four motors with rotor blades and an automatic system that stabilises the flight movement. There is no doubt about the indexicality of the images. But if they are traces, the question is, of what?
I choose my images (screenshots) in such a way that the encounter of chance and probability becomes visible in them. E.g., it is highly probable that my drone images are colourful and sharp. A physical event brought the motion blur into the picture, due to the unplanned trajectory through the top of a tree, inadequately foreseen in the drone’s programmes. During the collisions, the drone is controlled by a programme that is supposed to keep it stable in the air, no matter what causes the disturbance of the trajectory. The programme was ultimately successful and the drone landed safely. But this ending was not very likely.
So I am a photographic amateur who plays with philosophical interest against the programmes of the apparatus. My pictures are supposed to show that. My words are supposed to say that. Am I refuting Flusser or confirming him? I want to confirm him because I want to preserve photography as a movement of doubt. (All other uses are meaningless.) I contradict Flusser because the improbable in the image does not come from the technoid play against the programmes, but from the often forgotten material existence of the apparatuses which physically interact with the environment of the shot. The redundant order of probability was broken here by a human inattention and a slight breeze. The flying high-tech apparatus was unexpectedly catapulted from the colourful world of digital images into the historical reality of photography. That is, to where it consists of physical events. After 2 1⁄2 uncertain seconds of shock, the programmed automatisms brought the apparatus back to where everything is probable. At least as long as the battery lasts, which should, so that doubt keeps moving.