In the first semester, I first encounter with Susan Sontag. To be honest, I must admit that at that time, I found the essay hard to read for many reasons. It challenged my vocabulary, my intellect and finally, my view on photography. This and the recommendation from my first semester tutors “to invest more time into contextual research to help develop a more critically informed practice to your own work and the reading of Sontag, Barthes and other critical theorists, including Berger’s ‘Understanding a Photograph’,” motivated this critical research and reading of Susan’s book.
Who was Susan Sontag and in what context did the write?
Context is everything. Susan Sontag was an American writer and philosopher who throughout her career engaged in critical debate and commentary about modern society. Her comments in her critical essays on photography were directed to pre-digital photography practitioners. But before we start, we need to note her education and background.
Susan Sontag was born in New York City on January 16, 1933, grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended high school in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from the College of the University of Chicago and English literature (M.A., 1954) and philosophy (M.A., 1955) at Harvard University and taught philosophy, literature, and theology at Harvard University and Saint Anne’s College, Oxford. (Susansontag.com, 2019 and Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019).
What is important in this context is her critical commentary on modern culture and that ” she did nine works of nonfiction, starting with Against Interpretation and including Illness as Metaphor, Where the Stress Falls, At the Same Time, and two books that look at the photographic medium critically, On Photography (1977), and Regarding the Pain of Others. In 1982, FSG published A Susan Sontag Reader (Susansontag.com, 2019).”
It is also important to note that Sontag was “a human rights activist for more than two decades, Sontag served from 1987 to 1989 as president of the American Center of PEN, the international writers’ organization dedicated to freedom of expression and the advancement of literature, from which platform she led a number of campaigns on behalf of persecuted and imprisoned writers (Susansontag.com, 2019).”
Sontag ” earned the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography (1978).
Susan Sontag died in New York City on December 28, 2004.” (Susansontag.com, 2019)
Sontag’s comments are about a pre-digital, pre-internet photography world. Once she wrote a book she will not revisit it. However, even if her commentary still applies, Sontag’s bodywork is in need of an update, a challenge I believe Fred Ritchin has taken up in his essays After photography 2008 and Bending the frame (2013). But more about that in future blogs.
In the foreword of the book, Sontag describes her approach, that if disregarded would lead the reader away from her intent.
Her progress and struggle with this text are best described in this foreword: “It all started with one essay – about some of the problems, aesthetics and moral, posed by the omnipresence of photographed images, but the more I thought about what photographs are, the more complex and suggestive they became. So one generated another, and that one (to my bemusement) another, and so on- a progress of essays, about their meaning and career of photographs- until I’d gone far enough so that the argument sketched in the first essay, documented and digressed from in the succeeding essays, could be recapitulated and extended in a more theoretical way; and could stop (Sontag, 2019, intro).”
At first, reading the first essay In Plato’s cave, I disliked the way she wrote, not giving me a structure to work with, feeling surprised and frustrated. Then it dawned on me. She was not teaching but presenting her critical reflections, a liberal ramble, a process in understanding her own thoughts. A path we should all walk and a key part of the MA programme. She freed herself from approval, used every part of her intellect and education to deliver an unprecedented philosophical discourse on Photography. She was not a photographer and did not claim to be one, but she pondered on what the truth is that create the reflections on the photographic wall of the cave, the photograph. She seeks to elaborate on the possible intent or truth of what a photographers purpose was when creating the reflection. The unseen reality behind the viewer. Plato had a passive view of the truth-seeking not to judge but to accept the truth without judgement. Sontag is hypercritical, almost sceptical as she related her thoughts with her experience with news photographers, documentary photographers and the ordinary citizen photographers she knew. She saw people taking photographs seeking to ” record social rites, a defence against anxiety and a tool of power (Sontag 2019, p 7)”. I can only speculate whether she was a mere sceptic or her theological studies made her believe in the depravity of mankind, or both.
The first part of the essay seems generic with short philosophical and logical tenants of some uncovered truths, sometimes a tongue in cheek treatment that infuriates most photographers, present company included. Eventually, as she progresses towards the end of the first essay the detail indicates an active resentment and disappointment in photography and photographers, probably due to her experience with war and poverty and the related passivity of the viewers. In this section, her discourses become longer and have more depth. Something she needed to pursue in the second book in this series: Regarding the pain of others. This depth of her resentment or disappointment is best described in the following quote: “When I looked at those photographs, something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten: something went dead; something is still crying (Sontag, 2019, p 21).”
For the sake of brevity, let me rather list those tenants that I felt touched me and will affect my discourse on photography forever.
“Picture taking is an event in itself – to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore what is going on (Sontag, 2019, p 11) ” “often explicitly, encourage whatever is going on and keep on going on (Sontag, 2019, p 12).” And even stronger: “The camera does not rape or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and if at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate. All activities… which may be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment (Sontag, 1978, p 13) .” An ethical indictment to all aspiring photographers. However, it does spell out an ethical dilemma that each photographer needs to face. Especially documentary and Photo-journalistic photographers.
“To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or things), mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to times relentless melt (Sontag, 2019, p 16). ” As I age and experience the loss of loved ones, I cringe at how many photographs were never taken of both places and people, that now only live vaguely in my memory and will disappear forever after my death.
“Images that mobilise conscience are always linked to a given historical situation. The more general they are, the less likely they are to be effective. Sontag, 2019 p 17”. I find this tenant to be a truth to be used. In a post-apartheid South Africa, injustice and disparity have become invisible in the generality of the problem in the world. People just don’t want to know anymore. it’s still serious…and getting worse. but it is a worldwide phenomenon. To get attention to it may require finding ways to define it in a more unique way.
“Photographs are more memorable than moving images because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow… Each photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again (Sontag, 2019, p 18).” A photographer once said that we need to learn to enjoy every click. I believe we should print those photographs and relive that experience. Yervant, and Australian master wedding photographer says that you can only call yourself a photographer if you print your work. The print is still a unique artefact to be prized. I wonder what Gary Winogrand would have said about this. He was more concerned about taking photographs than printing them. For him, the learning was complete when the photograph was taken. He left behind a legacy of undeveloped film.
“In the last decade, “concerned” photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it (Sontag, 2019, p 22) “. This reminds me of the recent photograph of the Sirian boy, Alan Kurdi, on the beach in Turkey. His story literally opened doors, but any more pictures of many others have closed the ears of many that fear the impact of helping those in need.
Aesthetic distance seems to be built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art (Sontag, 2019, p 22).” So don’t throw any photograph away!
I have come to believe that an insightful reading of Sontag’s works will improve my discourse in photography and her insights and approach develop me to understand myself as a photographer, my subjects and my photographs and to articulate this understanding. I still think she invites us to critically think about photography and come up with our views, even if we disagree with her views. I have taken up that challenge and will be recording my journey in future blogs.
Sontag, S. (2019). On photography. London: Penguin Books, pp.1-26.
Susansontag.com. (2019). Susan Sontag. [online] Available at: http://www.susansontag.com/SusanSontag/ [Accessed 23 Nov. 2019].
Encyclopedia Britannica. (2019). Susan Sontag | American writer. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Susan-Sontag [Accessed 23 Nov. 2019].