Embracing Ambiguity

by Stephen Hebert on Thursday - 24 December 2009

in Arts

"Candy Cigarette" by Sally MannRecently I was watching an Art 21 episode that featured American photographer Sally Mann. Mann is probably best known for her 8×10 glass plate portraits of her children as they grew up (my personal favorite being “Candy Cigarette” pictured at right). During the episode, as Mann worked on photographs of rawhide dog bones, she attempted to describe what it was that she loved about the project (which to my art-dumb eyes seemed rather odd). During this interview, Mann said something that really struck me:

“If it doesn’t have ambiguity, don’t bother…”

She goes on to talk about the mendacity of photography, but honestly I stopped listening for two reasons:

  1. First, I felt like it was an incredibly pretentious thing to say.
  2. Then, as I rolled it around a little more, I realized that I loved it.

What keeps me coming back to the things that I love? It’s almost always the unknown. I love God and the Bible precisely because there is so much I don’t know. I love my favorite writers because they leave me asking questions or wanting more (I’m thinking Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example).

Ambiguity is a tool for creating the unknown. Look again at “Candy Cigarette” above. What is really going on here. Sure, there’s the obvious focus of the photograph: the girl with the candy cigarette. We can ask what’s going on with her, and wonder about her attitudes. Is she a pre-pubescent rebel? How is it that she seems to be able to hold that candy cigarette in such an adult fashion? Moving beyond her, however, we have even more questions. E.g., what’s with the kid on the stilts? We could interpret this photograph in so many ways. Is Mann trying to say that children grow up too fast? Or is she saying the opposite? It’s ambiguous; it’s unknown.

As a writer and a historian, I’ve found that I always want to know things completely. If I’m working on a historical project, I want to be able to give that “thick description”1 that will leave my audience thinking two things:

  1. Hebert is thorough.
  2. Hebert is right.

But, in the art of history, as well as in the art of Biblical interpretation and theology, isn’t there something to be said for the old Broadway adage: “Leave ’em wanting more”?

The truth, if we’re intellectually honest, is that we don’t know it all. Our access to the past is mediated. There’s a thousand layers of dust between us and the people, places, and events that fascinate us.2

Why pretend to know them completely and fully? Isn’t it the unknown that has attracted us? Why do we think that our readers and students will be fascinated without that same sense of the unknown? Aren’t we insulting their intelligence when we attempt to pull the wool over their eyes and claim that we’ve got the answer?

Always leave ’em wanting more…


  1. Thank you, Mr. Geertz.
  2. I’m sure I’ve made this point on this blog before. I also recently made it in the comments on a post about Harkness teaching over at Eddie Carson’s blog.

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