Chan-fai Cheung: Kairos. Phenomenology and Photography

Chan-fai Cheung:

Kairos. Phenomenology and Photography.

Review by Knut Skjærven.

Yes, it was a rare case of a decisive moment. The right time and the right place.

How else would you explain the two email messages with the same content landing in my mailbox at the beginning of June this year? On the same day. As if wanting to make their point with some importance.

The mails arrived from Zeta Books and obviously the publisher tried to get my attention for a new book that had just been published. The name of the book was Kairos. Phenomenology and Photography. The author was Chan-fai Cheung, Professor and Chairman, Department of Philosophy, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

How could the publisher know that I was in the process of studying the texts and pictures of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Was it not Cartier-Bresson that invented “decisive moments” in photography? Was he not the brilliant executor of “kairos photography”?

Here was a new book with the title Kairos knocking on my door.

The title is taken from Greek. The Greeks have two concepts for time, “kronos” and “kairos”. “Kronos” is the linear passing of time from a past, to a present, towards a future. “Kairos”, on the other hand, deals with decisive moments in time. Cheung sais: “Kairos … means the right time, opportune and seasoned time.” [1]

The two emails certainly got my attention. I downloaded the ebook version the same day. I guessed that it was probably quicker to get my hands on a hard copy of the book from the author than from the publisher, so I approached Chan-fai Cheung that very evening. A week later I had my hard copy. (You will need a hard copy of Kairos, since the virtual version does not give justice to the many photographs that are included in the book).

Emails were sent from China to Europe and back over the next days. Chan-fai Cheung asked me if I would like to review the book for a philosophical journal in Romania. Sure, I said, and later I almost regretted. After I started reading I realized that the written essays were not exactly Sunday entertainment. Particularly not for a right brained, wonnabe photographers like myself. Chan-fai Cheung seeks, in Kairos, to contribute to the ontology of the photographic image. No more, no less.

And that is a very ambitious task.

It has been many years since someone connected to the phenomenological movement, tried that. There is of course Roland Barthes with his now famous Camera Lucida [2], but that book was written 30 years ago. There is Vilém Flusser with his Towards a Philosophy of Photography [3]. Not to forget trials by Hubert Damish [4], Andre Bazin [5] and Siegfried Kracauer [6].

And then there are masters like Susan Sontag [7]and John Berger [8], who have made lasting contributions to the understanding of photography, but neither of them is explicitly related to phenomenology.

What triggered me was that Kairos was a combination of written essays and photographed essays. The many photographs (183 in all) come without explanations, which could be demanding in a world of fast perceptions. Many people seem to have lost the abilities to “deep read” photographs. If they ever had such an ability.

Today we tend to merely look at photographs and regard them as commodities that aren’t meant for a second look. Cheung’s photographs deserves more than that, particularly in the context of Kairos, where the images are published for a reason. Having the photographs presented without comments in as set up like this, is a daring move.

The written essays are: Hans Rainer Zepp: The Reality of a Photograph.; Kwok-ying Lau: Interplay between the Visible and the Imaginary; Chan-fai Cheung: Phenomenology and Photography; Doors and Windows; Funerary Sculptures and 30.000 Feet From Above.

I consider Cheung’s essay Phenomenology and Photography to be the core essay in the book. There the author indicates the intentions for his overall project.

The other essays elaborate on and opens up the core essay from different angles: Hans Rainer Sepp in his in depth analysis of one of Cheung’s photographs; Kwok-ying Lau investigating an approach to phenomenology and photography in a series of notes. And there are Cheung’s own additional essays, Doors and Windows, Funerary Sculptures and his short introduction to 30.000 Feet From Above. Not to forget, of course, the many visual statements in the photographic sections.

The essays make a nice portfolio of themes that takes you around in the varied world of phenomenology. Not all of them with the same importance. I find, for instance, that the last essay: 30.000 Feet From Above, is included more for the sake of the colourful pictures than for its contribution to phenomenology. In terms of photography Cheung simply can’t hold back. That spirit shines through the whole project.

I like such a straightforward, enthusiastic dedication.

In most chapters photos and texts are held together by a common theme. This is the case, for instance, in the sections of funerary shooting, and doors and windows.

In the core essay the photographs come uncommented in a great variety of themes and styles. From slices-of-life, to architecture, to close up flower shooting, and more. You sense Chan-fai Cheung’s great, great interest for visual statements and the high demands he makes on the readers/viewer to have the texts and the photographs come together as coherent messages.

Apart for my admiration for the project combining phenomenology and photography, Kairos presents many challenges. Particularly when it comes to closing in on important “ontological questions”. This is not the time or the place for any lengthy discussions of these matters, but let me mention some of them briefly.

In the preface the term “kairos” is set apart from from kronos, as it should be. Cheung continues: “… if photography is seriously considered as art, then the clicking of the shutter by the conscientious photographer for a particular phenomenon through his photographic seeing is what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment”, i.e. kairos. All creative photographic works are products of kairos.[9]

Such a definition is not what Cartier-Bresson had in mind when he described “decisive moments” in his famous essay from 1952. [10]

“Decisive moments” refer, first and foremost, to specific genres of photography e.g street shooting, people shooting and photo reportage. In addition, decisive moments need to be strikingly decisive to qualify as kairos’. Complying to rules of classical visual composition, and visual clarity, are other key parameters stressed by Cartier-Bresson.

I miss a chapter explaining how and why Cheung’s definition of “kairos” fit, or does not fit, to Cartier-Bresson understanding of “decisive moments”.

Another thing: Cheung borrows key terms from phenomenology. Two of these terms are “reduction” and “bracket”. The author sets these terms to work in a very specific way: “Reduction”, in Kairos, is the framing of a photograph. Related to the individual frame, “bracket” is a further reduction meant to eliminate unnecessary elements surrounding it. The second reduction, the bracket, is done with things like aperture setting, shutter speed, ISO, choice of lens, and position of photographer.

My question is: when adapting such key terms from phenomenology to a technical, photographic use, what are the terms that will substitute the “old” uses of these terms? There is a world of difference between a phenomenological bracketing of the natural attitude to turning wheels and handles on a camera. My worry is that the understanding of “reduction” here has gone too far.

Furthermore: Does the photographer leave the natural attitude when he looks through the viewfinder of a camera? Cheung says:” Photographic seeing is seeing through a view-finder of a camera. Hence is it in essence a restricted seeing and not seeing in the natural attitude.” [11]

I don’t agree that looking through a viewfinder of a camera implies that you abandon the natural attitude. Many things in our world, in fact most things, are based on a restricted seeing (like for instance driving a car), but that does not make such seeing phenomenological.

As much as I enjoy Kairos, I am in serious doubt about the uses of some of the central terms and definitions. Challenges, like those indicated above, needs be overcome for reasons of clarity. They can be overcome.

What is important is that Kairos has emerged at a crucial point in time. We take more and more pictures due to the digital revolutions, and to the low prices on adequate equipment. Today everyone is a photographer. Look at the amount of photography that goes into social media like Facebook. Look at the growth of flickr. Look at the amounts a pictures being sent via cell phones.

Yet, there is little understanding of what photography is, and what photographs do. Are we all brilliant executors of kairos all the time? Hardly.

The impact of the increased amounts of visual communication surrounding us has, so far, not been seriously investigated by phenomenologist. Phenomenology needs to take a stand and contribute to this area with insight, research and communication. The description, and understanding of photography plays a very important role in this. The task is huge, and it is badly needed. It is there to be taken.

Maybe now is the right time? Kairos could be a book to trigger the new interest we need to have in photography.


Illustration (the book page 102):

If I should pick one single photograph from the book that I particularly enjoy, it must be the one shot in Sicily in 2005. This image is one of the most beautiful in the book. At one time it holds great brilliance, and greats secrets. Presence and absence. An invitation to enter. An invitation to phenomenology.

Knut Skjærven:

Knut Skjærven lives in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was educated within philosophy, aesthetics, phenomenology, film and the visual arts at The University of Bergen, Norway, and Copenhagen Universtity, Denmark.

Apart from his business career within advertising, sales and business communication, he has worked as a free-lance writer and photographer for many years. He has written numerous articles and two books within the areas. One on phenomenology and film.

Knut Skjærven, has initiated, and runs a number of blogs, where he combines phenomenological insights with photography: Barebones Communication, WordPress 2007; Berlin Black and White, WordPress 2010; Photos of the Danes, WordPress 2010; Phenomenology and Photography, WordPress 2010.

[1] Chan-fai Cheung: Kairos. Phenomenology and Photography, Edwin Cheng Foundation Asian Centre for Phenomenology.

Hong Kong 2009, preface.

[2] Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida, Vintage Books 2000, London.

[3] Vilém Flusser: Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Reaktion Book 2007, London.

[4] Hubert Damisch: Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image, in Classic Essays on Photography, edited by Alan Trachtenberg, Leete’s Island Books 1980, New Haven.

[5] André Bazin: The Ontology of the Photographic Image, in Classic Essays on Photography, edited by Alan Trachtenberg, Leete’s Island Books 1980, New Haven.

[6] Sigfried Kracauer: Photography, in Classic Essays on Photography, edited by Alan Trachtenberg, Leete’s Island Books 1980, New Haven.

[7] Susan Sontag: On Photography, Penguin Books 1977, London.

[8] John Berger; Ways of Seeing, BBC and Penguin Books 2008, London.

[9] Chan-fai Cheung: Kairos. Phenomenology and Photography, Edwin Cheng Foundation Asian Centre for Phenomenology 2009,

Hong Kong, preface.

[10] Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Decisive Moment, in The Minds Eye, Aperture 1999, London, pp. 20-43.

[11] Chan-fai Cheung: Kairos. Phenomenology and Photography, Edwin Cheng Foundation Asian Centre for Phenomenology 2009, Hong Kong, p. 009.

Copenhagen, August 26, 2014.
© Knut Skjærven

See the printed article in Studia Universitatis, Romania 2010. The article starts on page 137.



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