Friday, May 27, 2011

Susan Sontag: On Photography: In Plato's cave – summary

On Photography

Humanity, argues Susan Sontag in "In Plato's Cave" in her collection of essays "On Photography", is still in Plato's cave. Photography changes are conditions of imprisonment and create a kind of "ethics of vision" and the feeling that we can contain the whole world in our heads.

Collecting photographs, Sontag Argues, is in a sense collecting to world. Photographs are artifacts which create and condense the environment that we perceive to be modern. She argues that photographing something is gaining ownership of it and creating a kind of, knowledge-like, relation to the world. Photography creates a miniature representation of parts (always just parts) of the visible world that anyone can obtain as his own. Photographs are a kind of proof, a testimony, and for this reason they are so important for bureaucracy and are an instrument of control with the capacity to convict and equate.

But Photography for Sontag is always an interpretation of the world and this interpretation, be it on the side of the photographer or the person viewing the photograph, is always ruled by conventions, ideology and the zeitgeist. Photographers always, inevitably, impose their own preferences on their product merely by choosing where they point their camera and how they point it.  

Sontag says the man has developed dependence on photography for the sake of the mere ability to experience something that has meaning. By converting the experience into an image photography gives shape, and time, to the transient experience. In other words, we need the camera in order to realize and substantiate our experiences.

A photograph is an event which lingers to, in principle, eternity. It is a way of participating in an event without being a part of it. Sontag sees the camera and a kind of sublimated weapon, and the act of photographing as symbolic shooting, or even raping. Sontag compare photography with rape because in photography we see people in a manner unavailable to themselves and we gain knowledge of them which can never be theirs, and thus photography reifies people into objects which can be subjected to symbolic ownership.

Photography for Sontag is also a form of nostalgia, an attempt to connect with a passing reality and to gain custody of it. Photography grant meaning to the moment, and as Sontag argues, a photographed moment is a privileged moment which was chosen for cultural reasons. Photography turns a moment into an event, because an event is something that is worth photographing, but it ideology which decides what's worth the film.
But though photography capture a moment and gives it meaning, its power is not constant. Repetition of images, be it horror or pornography, takes the edge off their affective capacities and the event becomes less real.

In concluding "In Plato's Cave" Sontag notes how photography separates history into unrelated fractures, a collection of anecdotes. But we are now all addicted to approving and ratifying reality through photography.  Today, everything exists in order to be photographed (see also Guy Debord's "Society of the Spectacle")

On Photography:
Chapter one - In Plato's Cave
chapter two - America, Seen Through Photographs Darkly
chapter four - The Heroism of Vision
chapter five - Photographic evangels

See also Roland Barthes On Photography

Books by Susan Sontag and about photography you should definitely read