INTRODUCTION
S H A W N M I C H E L L E S M I T H
A N D S H A R O N S L I W I N S K I
Photography mediates our experience of the world. Of this fact there can be
little dispute. The technology has come to permeate almost every domain of
contemporary life: images and cameras are a ubiquitous presence in our homes,
hospitals, museums, schools, and war zones alike. An astonishing amount of
human knowledge—of ourselves, of other people, and of the phenomenal
world—is bound up with this medium. In public and private, individually and
collectively, and in both productive and consumptive modes, photography has
become one of the principal filters between the world and us.
What has gone relatively unexplored are the ways that photography mediates
our experience and knowledge of the world in unconscious ways.1 Perhaps not
surprisingly, Sigmund Freud was one of the first to intuit this idea. He began
using photographic processes as a metaphor for his concept of the unconscious
mind as early as 1900; however, it was not until the 1930s when Walter Benjamin
began writing about the medium that the profound implications of this connec-
tion started to become evident. In the course of his studies of the revolution-
ary changes in perception that the technology introduced, the German cultural
theorist proposed that the camera revealed something he named the “optical
unconscious.” And while Benjamin has subsequently become one of photogra-
phy’s most important and influential thinkers, his ideas about the medium’s re-
lationship to the unconscious have remained curiously latent.2 As the interdisci-
plinary interest in photography continues to expand, this book seeks to broaden
and reframe the significance of photography’s relationship to the unconscious,
extending Benjamin’s germinative concept into a more potent critical tool.
Given Freud’s repeated use of the photographic metaphor in his theory of
the mind, it seems astonishing that he never constructed an explicit theory of
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