On Photography by Susan Sontag

I feel as if I have been ploughing a stoney field with a stubborn donkey and blunt plough shears after making my way through this book. Easy it is not! The book is a collection of essays ranging from a variety of philosophical subjects about photography.

Susan Sontag On PhotographySontag’s writing style is vastly different to that of Roland Barthes. She makes one search for those one or two nuggets of relevance or truth which is camouflaged in among a lot of verbiage about various philosophical writers like Plato, Balzac and such. I find her style rather arrogant and very academic. It is as if she expects the reader to know exactly what she is referring to or referencing. Expressions like “the Platonic depreciation of the image” (Sontag, p 154) and “the strategy of Proust’s realism presumes distance from what is normally experienced as real” (Sontag, p 164) abound throughout the book.

I found while reading that those paragraphs which actually meant anything significant to me were really few and far between. One of the sections in Plato’s Cave, however, did resonate with me. Sontag relates the story of when at the age of twelve, she came across photographs of Dachau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps and the effect these photographs had on her. She states that:

… a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying. To suffer is one thing; another think is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has strated down the road of seeing more-and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.’ (Sontag, p 20)

Having grown up in South Africa, I have seen the rapid increase of violent crimes throughout the country. In the early 1990’s newspapers no longer reported the murders of individual people. It wasn’t newsworthy enough. Multiple murders committed (five people or more) during the same incident were more newsworthy and believe me there were plenty. These images were broadcast regularly on TV without the requisite warning of “sensitive viewers might be offended” or “not advised for children’s viewing”. It was the news after all. This was almost a daily occurrence, with the result, that over the years one became desensitized to these images. One had to really, in order to remain sane. It is a survival mechanism. Once one becomes hardened to those types of images, it takes many years to develop a soft core again. Only after emigrating to Canada and living in this non-violent country where  murders in Vancouver total about twelve per annum, did the healing begin to set in. When 9/11 happened we had been in this country for about five years and I will never forget my reaction early that morning watching that horror unfold in real time. I stood and cried for those poor people. It took a catastrophic event like that to nudge my psyche back to health.

In America, Seen through Photographs, Darkly Sontag writes about Walt Whitman’s desire to show America in a positive light and Diane Arbus’s freakish works. Melancholy Objects deals with surrealism being at the heart of photography. Truth in photography is discussed in the essay, The Heroism of Vision. The old question of whether photography is art is covered in Photographic Evangels. In the final essay, The Image World she deals with the topic that society appears to prefer the ‘copy’ to the original. The photograph is more believable than the real thing. I am reminded of a joke I heard recently (I forget the source) where someone comments to a woman “My, but you have a beautiful son!” To which the woman replied “That’s nothing! You should see his photograph!”

I did not have the energy to do a second reading of Sontag, but I know that it is necessary and I will probably do so at a later stage. Preferably when I can digest the writing in an uninterrupted space and in small chunks.


Sontag, Susan. (1977) On Photography. New York: Picador


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