What an image can tell

This image was taken in Sweden more than thirty-five years ago. With my wife and our three small children I took a trip along a small road into a forest to document some at that time recently restored rock carvings from the Bronze Age. We left the car and walking along a narrow track soon came to a small glade where a long, sloping rock had been laid bare and brushed clean. A lot of figures had been filled in with a dark red colour.

The carvings were discovered in 1906, when a cow slipped on the rock and tore off a band of moss. It soon became clear that this was a very special find. Rock carvings are often associated with religion and cult. Among the figures there are no less than 17 chariots or carriages and 19 ring crosses or sun wheels. Other figures show a ship, serpents, foot soles and cup marks. The many horse-drawn vehicles depicted make these rock carvings unique in Sweden. Such carvings have been found in the Sahara, across Europe and as far to the east as Mongolia. The carriages resemble war chariots or battlewagons used in ancient Babylon. They are also believed to carry the sun across the sky. The numerous ring-crosses and wheels symbolize the sun as well as the cycle of life and death.

For a photographer this was of course the perfect place to document, but I had hardly put my camera up to my eyes before I saw our little son enthusiastically running around on the rock, eagerly pointing at the figures and shouting “Look, daddy! Tractor!” He made the sound children typically produce to imitate cars, blowing through his lips saying “Brrrrr…”. My focus quickly shifted from scientific documentation to telling a story.


Technically this is not a very good photograph. It is a scan from the original transparency. It is not critically sharp and the grain is visible. With oak trees surrounding the place, there was poor light in the forest, and the film I used was not very fast. The dynamic range is unsatisfactory with the highlights in the boy’s cap completely blown out.

But the quality of an image does not only hang on its technical merits and shortcomings. To me, a good image has something to say to the viewer, informs about something, arouses emotions and feelings, brings back memories, provides food for thought… Ideally it should also immediately catch the eyes of image researchers, photo editors and art directors and ultimately the eyes of magazine readers, web content users, a broad audience, the general public.

When I look at the image, I feel that I managed to capture exactly what I wanted it to convey. The archaeological/historical/scientific content is there, presented in its setting in the forest, and it is enhanced by the little boy’s obvious interest. His eagerness to take it all in is emphasized by the way he is turning his head at the same time as he is moving in another direction.

Having the main subject in the centre can easily make an image too static, but in this case the oblong rock with its figures creates depth by pulling the viewer’s eye into the image. The surrounding green also provides a frame that enhances the main subject.

That the image has some qualities is supported by the fact that a vertical image taken on the same occasion with my son looking contemplatively at the rock carvings was runner-up in an international photo contest with the theme “History around us”. The first prize was a travel voucher for a trip around the world – I got four history books…

Potential uses

There are many possible uses for my image of the little boy on the rock with carvings from the Bronze Age. It could illustrate an amusing story about how the discovery of primitive art from as early as 1500 B.C. was made possible because a cow happened to slip on a rock.

My image could be used in popular science as the background to a story about how people lived here some three and a half thousand years ago and about their customs and beliefs. Agriculture with its establishing of permanent settlements had begun a couple of millennia before, and these rock carvings were most likely close to such a settlement with long and low farmhouses with straw-covered roofs housing people in the western parts and animals in the eastern parts. The figures are obviously linked to their world of ideas and beliefs, but the meaning is still not quite clear to us. Is there a point in the fact that all chariots point in the same direction, roughly to the northwest?

The image could also illustrate the maintenance of ancient remains and how we take care of our heritage. After their discovery in the early 1900s, the carvings have been cleaned; a moist environment, algae, leaves and other organic material from trees in conjunction with weathering have then made them less visible; they have been cleaned again and the figures have been filled in with colour. Some years ago, a ramp for the disabled was built to facilitate for wheelchairs to get close to the carvings, and there is now an information board also for the blind.

Another use would of course be for scientific, archaeological or historical purposes. If published in a professional journal, the image could illustrate various aspects like, for instance, documenting, dating, interpreting and preserving prehistoric finds like this. Iconography, composition, significance, artistic quality, religion and cosmology, cult and rituals are topics that come to mind.

Educators could have the image as the basis for a discussion about teaching ancient history to small children, and with a boy showing interest in what looks like technical gear, the image could inspire discussions about gender issues.

There could also, of course, be conceptual uses of the image, illustrating childhood, adventure, curiosity, fascination, interest, tradition, cult, astrology, cosmology, past and future, etc. The image could symbolize the history of mankind and the vast time span between the Bronze Age and our time. The little boy has his life in front of him; these carvings speak about the myths and hopes of people who lived thousands of years ago.

This photograph is in line with a statement I make on my website, that most of my images have a human touch. To me, that is the essence of photography.



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