The title of the first essay in Susan Sontag’s On Photography refers to Plato’s allegory of prisoners in a cave who have been chained to a wall all their lives and can only see shadows of objects projected onto the opposite wall. For them, the shadows constitute reality, and they do not understand that what they call ‘book’ is merely the shadow of a book. Only when entering the outside world can one of them see the real objects and experience the world of Forms (or Ideas). Only knowledge of the Forms constitutes real knowledge.
Humankind, Sontag argues, still revels in mere images of the truth. But the fact that there are so many images (“… just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems”) changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world. We learn a new visual code, and “photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe”. Rather than being statements about the world, photographic images are pieces of it.
To illustrate our fascination with images, Sontag brings back a scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s film Les Carabiniers. Two peasants have joined the army on the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill or do just about everything they like. After many years they triumphantly return home to their wives with a suitcase full of – picture postcards.
Decades before the flood of images we now see in Facebook, Instagram and other social media, Sontag stated that photography “has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art”. She points at the “earliest popular use of photography: memorializing the achievements of individuals considered as members of families (as well as other groups)”. At weddings, “the photograph has become as much a part of the ceremony as the prescribed verbal formulas”, and not to photograph one’s children is ”a sign of parental indifference”. Then, of course, there are the travel and tourism images: “It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had.”
It would not be wrong to say that people have a compulsion to photograph. They have become image-junkies, says Sontag, calling this “the most irresistible form of mental pollution”. It hardly matters what activities are photographed so long as photographs get taken and are cherished.
Susan Sontag says that she divided her life into two parts, before and after (at the age of twelve) seeing photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, even if she did not then fully understand what they were about. When she looked at them, something broke. “I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead, something is still crying.” (Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, also talks about the power of photographs to wound.) Sontag makes a comparison between the Vietnam War and the Gulag Archipelago. The war in Vietnam was brought straight into our homes, and photographs had a much greater impact than television reports – arguably the best-known example being the Vietnamese little girl sprayed with American napalm. In contrast, the terrible conditions in the Gulag Archipelago never stirred our conscience – there were no photographs.
But photographs shock only insofar as they show something novel. Images of starvation, of war and horror have become banal, and the shock wears off. In such situations there is also the terrible choice between photographing and intervening. What is more important, recording an event for the world to see or trying to prevent the atrocity? The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene, and photographing, says Sontag, is essentially an act of non-intervention.
Several years before Roland Barthes made the same reflection, Susan Sontag understood that all photographs are memento mori. “A beautiful subject can be the object of rueful feelings, because it has aged or decayed or no longer exists.” And she goes on to say, “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” When Roland Barthes shortly after his mother’s death was looking at a photograph of her at the age of five, he realised that she was dead and that she was going to die. A photograph always tells us what has been.
Photography’s most grandiose result, says Sontag, is to “give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads – as an anthology of images.” She concludes the final essay in On Photography, The Image-World, by stating that images are more real than anyone could have supposed. But, she warns us, photographic images must always hide more than they disclose. If we accept the world as the camera records it, we think we know it. But, says Sontag, understanding starts from not accepting the world as it looks. “Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.” Back in Plato’s cave again, then?
Sontag’s essay is rich in ideas, and there are many I have not been able to mention here, such as her comparing a camera to a gun or the photographer to a rapist (but pointing out that the camera is not a very good way of getting at someone sexually), her many references to films or her point that photographers always impose standards on their subjects: the Farm Security Administration photographers would take many pictures of one of their subjects until they had got the expression they wanted that showed poverty, exploitation, dignity, etc.
After all, as Sontag says, any photograph has multiple meanings; “indeed, to see something in the form of a photograph is to encounter a potential object of fascination. The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: ‘There is the surface. Now think – or rather feel, intuit – what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way.’ Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.” The same could be said also about On Photography. It is a book that requires – and deserves – reading again and again.
Essays originally published in The New York Times
London: Penguin Books 1977 and subsequent printings