Reading & Seminar: Susan Sontag

For this session, we were ask to read the first chapter of Susan Sontag’s book, On Photography. As would form the basis of the seminar there we needed to confident in our association of the text.

When first beginning to read the chapter, I started by looking at the title – In Plato’s Cave. I find philosophical concepts to be quite interesting and felt it would be productive gain an understanding of the origins for this allegory.

The principles of this association with Plato’s cave made more sense in the given context. An overview of this idea is as follows.

  1. Plato has Socrates describe a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall.
  2. The people watch the shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them and they begin to ascribe names to these shadows.
  3. Socrates suggested that these shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality.
  4. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner freed from the cave and comes to understand that these shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

Sontag relates this allegory to describe human kind.

Humanity lingers un-regeneratively in Plato’s cave, still revelling in mere images of truth.

Unlike other forms of visual art, photography covers a wider spectrum, almost everything has been photographed at some time or other. In teaching new visual codes, photographs encourage us to clarify what holds value as a subject and what we allow be to seen, ‘an ethics of seeing’. This encourages us to believe that we can have entire knowledge of the world, through the ‘evidence’ of images (shadows).

Sontag highlights that a still image is also an object, lightweight, cheap and easy to reproduce, easy to carry about, accumulate and store.

However, this isn’t necessarily true in today’s digital age of photography. A still image can be used for digital purposes alone and therefore doesn’t offer the same intimacy or sensation as with film prints.

To photograph is appropriate the thing being photographed. It means putting one’s self in relation to the world feels like knowledge.

Photographs are seen to signify more than other mediums such as literature, painting and drawings, acting as piece of the world, elements of reality for anyone to produce or obtain.

From this, she moves on to discuss how the format and presentation of images can alter their ‘longevity. Physical prints in public access become alter over time, often lost, valuable but reproduced. Often the fate of photographs that seek to challenge preconceptions. Those that are seen to correctly represent the world are packaged in albums, framed in houses, complied and mass produced.

Books however can offer immortality but force the viewer to view them as the photographer decides as a opposed to how they were first experienced.’ Sontag offers the suggestion of dated and numbered stills as a response, as a means of evoking a greater emotional impact.

Photographs are often seen to act as proof of evidence. Either to incriminate or justify that an event or action has occurred. In law, CCTV is prioritised over verbal testimony of witness. Although, we now also offer greater priority to scientific evidence – DNA.

Sontag continues to suggest that even in attempting to distort the image, we can assume that something exists or did, similar to that of what we know. Whether this is through amateurism or artistry, it appears more innocent thus more accurate in their representation of reality.

The photographer seeks to show something through their images, waiting for the ‘best’ shot based upon their intentions, whether professional or hobby. Our pre-existing concepts of morality, social background, poverty, geometry can influence the decision of how an image should look (composition, light, expression). In a sense, the photograph is a representation of the word in the way paintings and drawings are.

Within its origins, photography offered the capture of the widest possible subjects. It was subsequently industrialised in technology, promising to encapsulate all experiences and covert them to images. Starting as an elitist tool, ‘the toy of the clever, the wealthy and the obsessed’ has become available to anyone. Prior to this, photography had no application in social use, simply acting as less pretentious art form. Since, it has become widely practised as than more than an art but as ‘a social rite, a defence against anxiety and a tool of power’.

Sometimes this is to immortalise family events or achievements – ‘not to take a pictures of their children, particularly when they are young is a sign of parental indifference, just as not turning up for one’s graduation picture is a gesture of adolescent rebellion’. This construction of the ideal family portrait offers an ‘imaginary possession of the past that is unreal’.

Or some, it offers an opportunity to establish proof of travel or exploration through tourism. It is often seen as unthinkable to travel without a camera, ‘Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had’. Which aims to add reality to what is being experienced.

A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limited experience to search for the photogenic.

As a results, she asserts that photography has become one of the tools from which we can experience something. Offer an appearance of participation. The act of picture taking is an event in itself. A position of observation, ignorant of what’s occurring around them. Thus, raises the ethical debate, to interfere or act as a silent observer, regardless of the atrocities taking place.

I believe that context is important in deciding whether it is right or constructive to interfere in a given situation. Interference can ignite further issues especially from the perspective of an outsider. Devastating events can not always be prevented through a photographers actions. However, this still raises the debate of priority for the desire of recognition and self gain at the expense of another’s well being or life.

The person who intervenes cannot record. The person who records cannot intervene.

At times, the position as the observer can almost become voyeuristic in its approach. Photographs aim to show an interest in observing the physical evidence of things as they are whilst working toward what makes the subject interesting, a worthy subject at times, regardless of another’s pain or suffered.

Arbus describes photography as a naughty thing to do. Ascribing various contexts to a situation of silent observation, something exploitative or sexualized. This notion of fantasy is connected with the camera, ‘a predatory weapon’. Advertised like a car, ‘automated’ and ‘ready to spring’, demanding no skill or expert knowledge.

To photograph people is violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have, it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.

Although, it could be argued that modern policies in relation to street photography and the general practice of photography have protected the interests of the human and animal subjects above the creative direction of the photographer. Release forms and licenses allow restrictions on the public distribution of unknowing subjects of images.

However, the wealth of images distributed via the internet is a ‘chosen’ invasion of person privacy, offering an enormous quantity of personal information. In some ways in has never been easier for someone to be a voyeur.

Sontag discusses how cameras have replaced guns in ‘the ecological safari’.

Nature has ceased to be what it always has been – what people need protection from. Now nature – tamed, endangered, mortal – needs to be protected from people. When we are afraid we shoot, but when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.

Changes in the human landscape has caused a desire to use camera to record the disappearance of biological and social life. She suggests that documentation of the world, no matter how colossal can serve to reaffirm our knowledge of the unobtainable, the desirability of such is enhanced by distance. Photographs express a feeling of sentimentality, almost magical.

This aims to raise issues relating to altruism. That even in a photographers honest intentions, there is still a sense of self gain or reassurance of morality.

Ideology determines what is an event, especially when it follows the agenda of editorial or commercial client. This is particularly the case in terms of nationality and preference, only highlighting the vulnerability and victimisation of their nation and not that of their current ‘enemy’.

Within the seminar, I brought quite a significant amount of this consideration and preparation into general discussion. The session itself was quite productive, encouraging contrasted opinions and debates. Encouraging us to consider new aspects previously un-thought of.

Overall, the enjoyed the atmosphere offered within the group situation.



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