At the end of the 19th century, Henry Fox Talbot called photography an impersonal method by which nature records its own reality, and a few years later in 1901, Zola said: "You cannot say you have seen something unless you have photographed it." and thus, from the very beginning, photography was considered an art that deals with pure reality and is not a chosen one like painting. With the emergence of a new generation of photographers, the history of photography became the scene of a conflict between beauty and reality. This conflict became so intense that subsequent photographers were preoccupied with reconciling beauty and truth with each other, as photography risked being despised for its realism devoid of elegance. This led to the emergence of different theories and figures in the history of photography, including Roland Barthes. Barthes considered the nature of photographs to be metaphysical and called photographers agents of death, even though they deal with life. He famously stated, "The photographic image...produces death in its attempt to preserve life." However, the experience of watching death and loss through photographs became repetitive, like the loss of our loved ones. On the other hand, as Susan Sontag points out, photographs have become more of a measure of beauty than the world itself, but over time, even their beauty fades. As she notes, "We have so many photos of the sunset that now many people think they are cliched and tasteless." Barthes introduced the concepts of "studium" and "punctum" to explain the aesthetic and truth-seeking aspects of photography. Studium refers to the general rules and elements present in a photo that the audience can understand and appreciate. A photo with studium is a true representation of reality. Punctum, on the other hand, is an element of the photo that stands out and captures the viewer's attention like an arrow. While studium stays within the frame of the photo, punctum breaks free and creates chaos. Barthes notes that "to express punctum, one must go beyond the ego's fence. One could argue that punctum is often found in seemingly insignificant details, like an unfinished object. As such, giving examples of punctum can be seen as a form of self-surrender." However, this act of surrendering oneself is not easy for most people. For instance, Rodin was criticized for leaving his sculptures partially unfinished, regardless of his intentions for the objects to be perceived as half-finished. Furthermore, Barthes argues that punctum has no preference for morality or good taste. It can be found in the most unfitting of subjects. This approach opened new avenues for photographers to capture powerful and impactful images.
Joel-Peter Witkin is a photographer who refuses to conform to moral principles and common tastes. Instead, he creates works that aim to touch the audience's soul and leave a lasting impression. In his photographs, he displays anonymous and unidentified corpses, severed human body parts, pre-operative transsexuals, dwarfs, giants, bearded women, individuals with tails, horns, reversed hands and feet, and people born without arms, legs, eyes, chest, genital organs, ears, or noses. He uses those who bear the wounds of Christ (as he is a devout Catholic) and frames them in a way inspired by the most beautiful paintings in art history to advocate for the rights of all these people, both living and dead, in society. With his unconventional art and passionate approach, Joel-Peter Witkin has positioned himself among the most marginalized artists in history. His work has both attracted praise from those who see him as Saint Francis of Assisi, who sucked the poison from lepers to ease their suffering, and criticism from others who view him as a sadomasochistic monster whose sole purpose is to exploit and harass his subjects and the viewers. Eugene Perry, a writer, suggests that "Witkin seeks to capture images that reveal a truth, which is not always pleasant." On the other hand, Cintra Wilson, a critic, states that "I believe Joel-Peter Witkin is a genuine pervert from birth." All of Witkin's subjects are the result of the Russian roulette game of fate, whether through genetics or accidents and despite this, he refuses to discard them from the cycle of life. Instead, he incorporates them into famous frames of art history and questions why they are not represented in the works of even the most avant-garde artists. Yet, when he gives voice to their existence and desires, some accuse him of insanity. Why do the artists who inspire his work receive adoration, while he is labeled a perverse sadist? A great artist like Goya also paid attention to sensual nudity and the horror of war, Rodin and Schiele also dealt with wrong forms of gender, activists Weiner and Marina Abramovich touched on sadomasochism and self-mutilation, and even photographers like Diane Arbus were the source of inspiration for some of Witkin's photos, but none Which are not bad names like him.
However, the way each person perceives and approaches Witkin's photographs, or whether they prefer the beautiful pictures of ugly subjects taken by Helmut Newton or Witkin's ugly pictures of beautiful subjects, is a personal matter. What is crucial is to comprehend the truth underlying Witkin's work and his ultimate goal with his photographs. In an interview, Witkin stated: "I wanted my photos to be as powerful as the last thing a person sees or remembers before death." Even if we were to view this as his sole artistic objective, he has undoubtedly achieved it.