IN PLATO’S CAVE
Photographs themselves have become so widespread, and their subject matter so
all encompassing that it has changed both what we think is worth seeing and, in
terms of ethics, what we think we have a right to see. For Sontag, collecting
photographs is like collecting the world in a cheap, portable and permanent form
(unlike moving images that goout). She describes the camera as ‘. . . the ideal arm
of consciousness in its acquisitive mood’ (p. 4). Yet despite being modern,
photographs are mysterious.
Photographs are not interpretations like writing and handmade images.
Photographs seem to be pieces of reality that one can own. They impart knowledge
about the world that gives power to the viewer, but having power over something
isthe first step towards being alienated from it. Photographs change the scale of
reality and in turn have their context, i.e. presentation, use, ownership, condition,
changed. Books are the most influential way of presenting, preserving and
arranging photographs. And unlike a painting, a photograph is a flat smooth
object that loses few of its characteristics (including that of beingcollectable)
when published in a book. The book can control the order in which photographs
are looked at, but cannot control the length of time they are viewed.
Neither amateurish inadequacies nor artistic distortions undermine the notion
that behind every photograph there was something there in the first place. This
closeness to reality distinguishes photography from other forms of representation.Sontag sees painting, speech and writing as being a ‘narrowly selective
interpretation’ and photography as a ‘narrowly selective transparency’ (p. 6). It is
this presumed truthfulness that makes photography authoritative and seductive,
yet despite capturing reality photographs are also interpretations. She cites as an
example the photographers of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) projectwho would take numerous photographs of the same person until they had
captured exactly the right expression to convey how the photographer
interpreted poverty (see Figs 27 to 32). Even photographs that seem innocent are
not neutral statements. It is because photography is passive and is everywhere,
and it is aggressive in the sense that it sees everything as a potential photograph.
Thisgives it an ‘imperial’ scope (unlike painting). Its early promise to democratise
all experiences by giving them equal value by turning them into images has sped
up technological advances.
Early photography was essentially an artistic activity. Photography’s mass
production resulted in the development of the amateur photographer with his or
her social uses of the camera. Photographers practicingphotography as an art
reacted to this by becoming even more self-conscious.
Photography has become a mass art form and so most people do not practice it as
an art. It is a social rite, in weddings for example. It is a ‘defense against anxiety’,
providing a substitute for the extended family, allowing people to think they have
a particular past that is in fact not real; and it is a ‘tool ofpower’. Sontag argues
that tourists feel insecure and use photography to take possession of their new
spaces ( just as they photograph to take possession of their past). The photographs
become proof both of the visit and the pleasure; however they can negate the
experience by getting between the tourist and the experience, as the tourist now
searches for photographs rather than experiences(see Memories Are Made Of
This, Fig. 42). Sontag sees societies particularly prone to this use of photography as
those driven by the work ethic (photography becomes a substitute for work) and
those that have had a traumatic break with their past (German, Japanese and
Sontag quotes an advertisement showing a group of people, apart from one they
are all passive but moved by...