Sontag On Photography: Two Views


This article originally appeared in Issue# 11

Two working photographers respond to Susan Sontag

Photography is the world's number one hobby. So when Susan Sontag's On Photography hit the bestseller list recently, it caused an uproar among photo professionals and hobbyists alike. "To photograph people," Sontag said, "is to violate them...It turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed." In an attempt to further explore the values of photography today, Media&Values asked two professional photographers to read the book and share their responses.


"Essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own."
— Susan Sontag

Christian Molidor:

Reviewing Susan Sontag's book is analogous to printing in the darkroom. The forming image is sharp, trenchant - a good picture; but it isn't exactly the photo you had in your head.

Photography's inferior but inexorable version of reality is the bases of On Photography. Sontag discusses in the six essays not only the philosophical question of how reality may be perceived and knowledge gained, but she also reviews photography in its context: as a tool, an industry, an activity that "imposes a way of seeing" and therefore, actually alters reality. Sontag sees that photography, leveling everything, also beautifies. Let the subject be what it will - pollution, death, war … photography will tend to make it look aesthetically pleasing.

Having take hundreds of photographs in Southeast Asia, crying with camera on the evils of hunger and poverty, I agree. My photographs of India, for example, and the intense suffering I witnessed, are some of the most lovely I have. Colorful saris and strong, handsome faces do not bear the truth of the pain I tried to record. But perhaps those faces told another reality … one I was not wise enough to see.

To take a photograph, Sontag writes, "is to appropriate the thing photographed." This concept of getting-in-order-to-use-up is important in understanding photography's function. The appropriation, the stealing without touching, the having a semblance of knowledge, she likens to perversion. The author claims everything is camera grist and in the end, no matter what the photographer may want, everything becomes equal in value so long as it makes an interesting picture. Our learned and inherited preference for "images" over "real things" is a danger; but no less a danger than believing what we see without reason.

Sontag insists photography is an aggressive act which makes reality atomic, manageable, denies interconnectedness and continuity, and confers on each moment the character of a mystery. Alienating us from direct experience, the photo provides a more intense second-hand experience, an illusion of knowledge. Essentially disjunct, mute, the photo cannot tell the truth that comes only from words and narration.

Sontag's essays - meditations, really - are variations on the theme of photographic images and their ambiguous but potent force in the modern consciousness. Her book is precise and complete in tone and color, with shades of intelligence so numerous they create a picture. And I agree that the image is fundamental to the cultural impact of the camera.

But to know an experience by seeing it photographed is to know it as distanced, second-hand, fragmentary. To me, photography is a way to explore the world and myself. If photographers learn to see well and to use their tools effectively, photographs will be unique, personal expressions - images which bring joy in the making and in the sharing with others.

Really "seeing" things is vital to photographer and photographs are a way of preserving what we see. It is a chance to recapture the profound sense of excitement, the magic of living which we felt so keenly as children. Photography is a way to shout "Wow" and really mean it.

I prefer the term "make pictures" because people who love photography don't simply lift a camera to their eye and press the shutter. You don't "take" pictures. You do far more than that. You become involved with what you are photographing and think about what you are doing. Caring and joy go together.

I'm not certain anybody has ever created anything with a camera. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that God creates, and that some human beings discover. Discovery is not accidental. We discover only when we make ourselves ready to receive and photographers seek discovery by mastering their craft. But it begins somewhere else. It begins with daisies, kids, awful scenes, falling in love, or growing old. It begins with that which matters to you. And it ends with visual statements that express what matters to you about these things. It is not sight the camera satisfies so thoroughly, but the mind.

Mike Harter:

Simply stated, photography is taking pictures. But more than that, it involves the eye and the soul of the photographer using a mechanical tool to record both a physical reality and an inner reality. As a religious photographer, I try to reveal to the subject I photograph an inner dignity of which the subject may not be aware.

In my more flippant moments, I have been heard to say that the only difference I see between the good secular and the good religious photographer is in the amount they are paid for their work. The ability to visualize and produce a good photograph is a gift perfected through years of patient toil and practice.

So, as one who practices photography rather than one who reads or writes about it, I ventured into Susan Sontag's essays cautiously - ready to ask questions and to challenge her statements. Initially I found myself reacting strongly against her assertions and conclusions. Since these essays are not written in the language of trade magazines or the instructions packed with chemicals or equipment (my normal photographic reading materials), it took some time to familiarize myself with her style.

This series of six essays and a collection of quotations is not a book for the beginner wanting to venture into the world of photography. Rather, it is an attempt at a sweeping critique of everything photographic. Her interests range widely from detailed analyses of individual photographers to why people fear having their photographs taken; from historical development in photographic equipment to why people take pictures of any and everything: tourist to scientist, artist to technician, surveillance photography to medical examinations. The debate about whether photography is an art or a tool weaves its way in and out of the various essays.

In addressing herself to such an array of topics in the field, Ms. Sontag speaks out of a wide cultural, literary, historical and philosophical background and expects the reader to have familiarity if not knowledge in all of these areas.

Her treatment of individual photographers, including references to specific photographs, also requires a detailed familiarity with these photographers and their works. (Understandably she does not reproduce any photographs in this book as illustrations of what she says or of the photographer's works; her treatment of the uniqueness of the actual original print is adequate justification for such an omission.)

Included as the final chapter of this book is a collection of quotations, statements, reprints of advertisements, lines from novels, manuscripts and thesauruses all having to do with photography. Clever and thought provoking, the diversity of these quotations certainly illustrate the difficulty of pulling together such a vast field as "photography." Some quotations are footnoted while others are not. It would have been much more helpful had Ms. Sontag given the references to all of them since their context would obviously help in the interpretation and understanding of some of them.

Although one will not agree with all of her conclusions or premises (primarily because she does not spend enough time establishing most of them) her statements are engaging, thought provoking and evoke comment or criticism from the reader. I'm glad I read it, and would suggest it to someone else who enjoys discussing photographers and their styles and purposes.

— Mike Harter, SJ

Author Bio: 

Christian Molidor holds an MA in photo journalism from the University of Iowa. She has traveled extensively in China and throughout Asia as a freelance photographer for the Asian Society. Mike Harter is Director of Media Services for Ministry Training Services in Denver. He is currently directing and photographing "70 x 7," a slide program on reconciling the ex-offender into the Christian community.