Susan Sontag’s On Photography is not entirely what I expected. There are certain ideas that I agreed with, others that were revelatory, other that I questioned, others that I disagreed with entirely, and yet others that I was appalled by. But I guess it would be wrong to expect from any book deemed essential on the subject matter it approaches to connect with your own reasoning entirely. I however always appreciate a book that requires a good quality of thinking from the reader. That’s what I felt Sontag’s book did.
I suppose what intrigued me the most about it was that the writer seemed so detached from the subject she writes about, there is no sense of warmth towards photography. I now understand why it caused so much controversy when it was first published, in 1977, and why it still does. The writer always uses absolutes, generalises too much, reads all photography in the same way. It hardly enables dialogue. It barely sustains any positive thoughts about photography and the craft of photography – I believe a more accute delineation between unassuming snapshot and fine art photography, between a Japanese tourist picture and Henri Cartier-Bresson would have been in order. She is direct, even tasteless and caustic in her writing. And the fact that, in time, she changed her mind about some of her views presented in the book should make us aware that we must form our own opinions. On anything, not just on photography.
That being said, one of the most remarkable things about these essays is how much they apply to our present day image-saturated digital world. Suddenly, Sontag’s penetrating critique on photography that doubts the value of the activity of taking photographs, questioning its nature, meaning and future, does not seem so blameful. She portrays with great precision the irrevocable changes that the advent of this technology has had on our world and on how we experience it. It is incredibly prescient, a 20th-century criticism that speaks a rampant, painful, disquieting truth, decades in advance, about the state of 21st-century culture.
“Today everything exists to end in a photograph.”
I wonder how Susan Sontag would have handled the digital revolution unleashed in the decades after her writing. The way we are obsessed with ourselves, and with how others see us, and with how we view others. We do not take pictures for ourselves (if we did, we would not share them on social media), but to appeal to the complete strangers in the vacuum of the internet. We don’t even take photos of ourselves, but of what we aspire to be, of ourselves looking our best – perfect, happy, successful at all times. We have lost our ability to appreciate the attention and appreciation of the individual because we are consumed with appealing to the unidentified masses. Our online presence takes precedence of our being present in our own lives.
Every one of us, even those of us who are critising and making efforts against the digital culture (myself included) stocks up a storehouse of images. I don’t put personal photos on my site or on social media, but that doesn’t mean that reaching for the phone camera has not become a sort of a reflex for myself as well. And I hate it. So on a recent trip to the mountains, I struggled not to take too many photos of the beautiful snowy surroundings. How about trying to record those beautiful memories with your mind’s eye rather than snap one photo after another and losing that special moment? How about remembering how your child grasps your hand with enthusiasm and anticipation his first time on the slope, or how his rosey, cold cheeks felt against yours as you both gazed quietly, feeling connected yet each one lost in your own thoughts, into the big white rather than trying to keep the distance so that you can capture the “perfect” moment?
Once again, I return to the words of one of my favourite interviewees, photojournalist José Pablo Cordero Iza, who, when I asked him “Do you wait for a good photo? Are there times when you simply witness the moment without taking/making any picture?”, he gave me one of the most thought-provoking answers: “With respect to your question, there have been many photographs that I have kept in my mind. There are personal moments that are magical, and I keep them for me. I feel that being without the camera in some moments allows me to catch those seconds in my mind. It is my intimate moment with the observed.“ That was one of those rare moments that opened up a new way for me to view photography. I can sincerely say that, from that moment on, I have often taken a moment to think before pushing the button, and I have tried to respect the ones I photograph, but also the act of photographing more, and the special moments that I have kept just for myself have become much more regular. And I sometimes hear myself saying: “Don’t spoil the moment, don’t take a photo.”
Returning to the book, the thing is that the way we engage photography has not really changed, it has just evolved, and that evolution has culminated with the digital modernity that we are unfortunate to be part of. That’s the brilliance of Susan Sontag’s view on photography.
“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience
enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism
to which everyone is now addicted.”
“There is a rancorous suspicion in America of whatever seems literary, not to mention a growing reluctance on the part of young people to read anything, even subtitles in foreign movies and copy on a record sleeve, which partly accounts for the new appetite for books of few words and many photographs.”
“So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying
the world that photographs, rather than the world, have
become the standard of the beautiful.”
“Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality, and of realism.”
Further reading on photography: The Mind’s Eye / One Day That Summer: Linh, Northern Vietnam