Well we all know what a camera is don’t we? From a Leica medium format camera through to iPhone, they all have something in common. They vary in shape and functionality but essentially, irrespective of their mode of production, their purpose is the same – they are little boxes into which we pour light. But the camera does have a peculiar relationship with us and the way we see the world. It’s a ‘tool-thing’ as the great 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger (1953) would describe it, and like all tools it is both present-at-hand and ready-at-hand.
What this distinction points to is that our camera, like all objects, has an essential reality and is embedded in a relationship with all other things with which we exist in the world. Indeed, the matrix of relationships of things in the world, of which the camera is one element, all come together for us in our being in the world, and it is in that relationship that the camera gains its meaning for us. Within this structure of relationships, the camera exists in the background, unobtrusive and unnoticed, however when needed it presents itself as ready at hand and we use it, but do we notice it? We only notice it as far as we use it in one part of its functionality and purpose, and then we put it down and again it withdraws into the shadows of our awareness. We only notice its presence at hand when it does not function as we expect, then Heidegger points out we do appreciate deeper aspects of the real object that we hold ‘present at hand’ but now not ‘ready at hand’.
But, isn’t this true of anything? When something does not work as we anticipate, when it breaks, then it emerges from the background of functionality and announces its reality loud and clear. The general point here is that in fracture we can see more than ‘readiness at hand’ of anything: brokenness takes us past functionality and into the being of the object. So, when you seek the essential reality of your subject and want to penetrate the barrier of perception and functionality take special notice when it is broken.
Heidegger, M. (1953). Being and Time. Albany, State University of New York Press.