In ancient times Plato distinguished between two kinds of poetic narrative. One was the simple narrative (diegesis) and the other was the imitative narrative (mimesis). The simple narrative was expressed through the voice of the poet himself, and imitative narrative was expressed through his characters.
“If the poet nowhere hid himself [behind a character], his poetic work and narrative as a whole would have taken place without imitation” (Republic, III, 393d). Here, Plato argues in favor of diegesis because it is endowed with greater authenticity; it is more honest and less feigned (ibid. 396c), in contrast with mimesis, which cheats artificially hypostatizing the poet’s voice.
In the Sophist (235d) Plato also distinguishes two types of imitative techniques: one that aims to imitate reality faithfully (tekhne eikastike) and another that focuses on a manipulative imitation (tekhne phantastike). Obviously, as a philosopher, Plato rejects both imitative techniques as not useful for philosophy, since imitation (mimesis) always distorts reality and generates impressions far from the truth.
As photographers, we care little about the essence of truth, since we work with representations of it rather than with the truth itself. Aristotle was right in his Metaphysics (II, 993b) when he wrote that truth is something that no one as an individual can achieve; we can only approach it partially. If this is so, if the truth is inaccessible even to the philosopher, will not all narrative then be something partial and uncertain? Will not all narrative be something subjective and fictional? Who will judge what is true and what is not?
The curious thing is that photography deals with problems similar to those of philosophy. From its birth, photography was considered science and not art, and it sought to be faithful imitation of reality. However, despite its strong tradition, with the passage of time the artistic ambition of many photographers, such as Edward Steichen, enabled the development of photography as subjective art. Thus, photography, which initially freed painting from the task of representing reality, began to release itself from this inherited responsibility and claim its own place in the world of fine arts.
Plato saw it clearly: diegesis is primary. Diegesis —the direct voice of the author— is implicit in all narratives. As Gérard Genette said in his essay The frontiers of narrative (1966), “a discourse can imitate only itself”. So, even mimesis is a kind of diegesis. Photography is a narrative that imitates, it is a mimetic diegesis. It is not an imitation that narrates, it is not a diegetic mimesis.
Photography, just as literary art, is a means of subjective expression in which the author does not copy reality objectively, but instead interprets it. The photographer is a narrator who tells his own stories, his own ideas through his own voice. Photography does not capture reality chimerically as if it were the art of an objective lens-eye. Photography is not mimesis. The photographer interprets, transforms, expresses. Photography is diegesis.