Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Sontag On the Tyranny of Images

"Camera" by Hai Sam Nguyen on flickr
In On Photography, originally published in 1977, Susan Sontag offers incisive insights into the form and the mindsets and ways of being that photography engenders.  She astutely observes how, as a result of the “insatiability of the photographic eye,” photography as common practice essentially changes the way we relate to the world.  She observes how photographs, in their ubiquity as practice and presence, “teach us a new visual code” and, in essence, “alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at” as well as profoundly altering our sense of “what we have a right to observe.”  She also notices how photographs alter our perception of scale of importance and of continuity.   All six essays in this volume are brilliant and cutting, but this post is focused on the opening section of the book, "In Plato's Cave" which would be a laudable choice as required reading for any adult in western society after the 1950s, when the relatively inexpensive accessibility of cameras and photo-sharing technologies (from the Kodak print, onward) so profoundly altered our perspective of reality so dramatically that most people are immune to any consciousness of the shift.  And this was before Facebook equated the image with one's personal status on a literal level. 

Sontag observes that part of the appeal of photography comes from its way of giving people “imaginary possession” of an “unreal past” while simultaneously helping people to “take possession of space in which they are insecure.” A habit of photography is “a way of refusing experience” by “limiting experience to a search for the photogenic.”
Consider this opening passage:
Humankind lingers unregenerately in Plato’s cave, still reveling, its age-old habit, in mere images of the truth.  But being educated by photographs is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images.  For one thing, there are a great many more images around, claiming our attention.  The inventory started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems.  This very insatiability of the photographing eye changes the terms of confinement in the cave, our world.  In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter  and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observes.  They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.

I wonder about the degree to which my sense of being is shaped by photographs, but I suspect that thinking about this is a little bit like asking a fish how the water feels.  

Unlike with more “artisanal” forms of representation, photographs are often treated as “narrowly selective interpretation[s]” or “evidence.” There is a built in bias to equate photographic images with “truth,” even if we know better, understanding that “photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.”

One particularly interesting observation that Sontag shares involves the way that “there is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.” Considering this in light of the ubiquity of cheap, universally accessible, photographic technology, the implications of this certainly give pause.  Add to this, other mindsets prevalent in an increasingly complex, modern society.  Consider the insatiable tendency to document, photograph, to the point that “it hardly matters what activities are taken so long as photographs get taken and are cherished” (remember, in 1977, Kodak business was booming, and Sontag is still referring to print images: those endlessly collectible, handed down, and passed around artifacts taken, for the most part as representations of past events and people as they once were.  Photographs essentially “help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.” I can only imagine that the effects Sontag describes are magnified now.  I cannot help but juxtapose the increased call for “mindfulness” and training people to “be present” with the reality of living in a world where, according to Sontag’s argument, “a way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it - my limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.” Experience becomes shaped by a mindset of “stop, take a picture, move on,” where travel becomes a strategic way to collect more photographs.  And consider, this is before Facebook, when one’s status and identity is literally (as opposed to metaphorically, as followers of Sontag may have it may have been more likely to observe) linked to ones photographs.

Another strong observation Sontag delivers involves the connection between photography and nostalgia:
It is a nostalgic time right now, and photographs actively promote nostalgia.  Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos… to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. 

Sontag thoughtfully considers the capacity of photographs to raise awareness of injustices in such a way that people are moved to action.

In the vein of exploring the capacity of photographs to elicit emotional outrage, shock, or other feeling, she observes that “photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised - partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror.” She goes on to hauntingly give voice to the peculiarly modern “negative epiphany” of being “stunned by an artifact from the “photographic inventory of ultimate horror.”  As she recalls her own experience upon first encountering photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau in 1945, at the age of twelve.  Its an experience, like much of what she catalogues in this essay, so common that it might easily go overlooked - perhaps mores now, over three decades later, when the photographs often arrived unbidden, with even greater and more constant velocity, through many more available livestreams.  If one wanted to avoid them, it would be difficult to discern where or where not to look.  

"Sailor, Uniform" by Beryl_snw on flickr
I recall a similar feeling of helplessness upon my first encounter with similar images.  I am hard pressed to say which came first: the children with swollen bellies in Ethiopia, the child running from the destruction of Hanoi, or a black and white image of concentration camp victims, or the piles of corpses in mass graves.  I recall a series of days of being ill with certain dizziness and weakness after witnessing some particular images of Nazi concentration camps when I was seven, which fortunately my mother did not ask me to explain.  It was a double-edged horror: of the destruction and degradation I had seen in the photographs, with the sense that the adults around me had all seen it before, and so adulthood was in part a matter of getting used to certain degrees of horror while maintaining a sort of ironic detachment from it all.  I had a strong suspicion - which from time to time bubbled into utter fear and despair - that I did not have it in me to do so, and therefore was not qualified to live and act in this world as a functional adult - a state that seemed, even in my earliest memories, to be ever-present and waiting for me just around the corner.  How on earth would I ever make it? I was no stranger to heartbreak, sadness, and even horror on the immediate scale, but how was I supposed to grow into the sort of person who could witness large-scale, calculated, devastating horror on the level of the images of Dachau and still manage to be the person who offered guests cheese and crackers, and remembered to bathe, and pay the electric bill, and polish one’s Sunday shoes?  How was that supposed to be managed?  As Sontag recalls her own initiation into photographic horror, “a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead, something is still crying.”  There’s a peculiar degree to which the photographic images presents horror outside of its context, such that the witness is forced to witness while being prevented from taking some immediate action.  The horror is in a sense magnified, because it can be examined in a way that horror rarely can be when it is lived: often, the urgency of survival in such situations is so great that it has the effect of mitigating existential contemplation of the event.

One way of dealing with this angst, Sontag eerily reminds, is by growing accustomed to the horror.  One learns to adapt to it, and the effect is lessened.  Exposure to suffering is profoundly different from exposure to photographic images of suffering, because the photographic image “does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them… Images anaesthetize. An event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been if one had not seen the photographs - think of the Vietnam War… But after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real.  

As a result of living in a world where photographic images of horror are increasingly prevalent, citizens of this world develop a “certain familiarity with atrocity, making the horrible seem more ordinary.” It is possible, she argues, that after a certain “saturation point” had been reached (as she believed it had, by the late 1970s) such that “‘concerned’ photography” published after saturation “has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it.”

In the concluding sections of this powerful piece, the writer relates the following:

Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it.  But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.

The omnipresence of photographs has an incalculable effect on our ethical sensibility. By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is.
Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.

Today, everything exists to end in a photograph.

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