Notes 'On Photography' - Plato's Cave

I've started reading Susan Sontag's 'On Photography' (1972) and have just finished the first essay 'In Plato's Cave'. in this chapter she discusses how photography is more than extracting snippets of reality from the world, but that the photograph itself is the result of an intrinsic relation between the perception and paradigm of the photographer and the reality that is being photographed. She then explores the meaning of taking photographs itself. First of all how it changes the world into a 'set of potential photographs' and therefor giving every reality and happening an extra layer of meaning. This layer has the function of 'democratizing' and freezing every image and moment, making it available to everybody at any given moment.

The photographer itself is instead of experiencing the moment, already focused on this other layer as Sontag describes it: 'refusing experience', or a way of taking possession of space in which they feel insecure by transforming it into a way of image taking and creating the image in which they feel secure. The paradox lies in how '...Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation' while at the same time an '... escape of real participation of the moment and the taking possession of a past that is unreal'.  The value of the images seem to overtake the value of reality itself. 'Picture taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights- to interfere' The example of war photographers who take images while other people are taking other people's lives or are literally being shot accentuates this value. Photographs outlasts us all. Referring to the title of the essay, one could conclude that with taking photographs, when enters Plato's cave and creates a world that seems to be build of snippets of reality, but which in truth is no 'generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth'.

Sontag quotes Diane Arbus saying: 'Photography is the naughty thing to do' Why did she perceive this as naughty? The essay goes on in describing the aggressive element in taking photographs. The subject is completely impotent to have an influence on how it will be photographed in a sliver of time, the camera, or 'photographers are always imposing their standards on their subjects'. I find this link between impotence and aggressiveness fascinating. Sontag makes clear how photographing people violates the 'seeing as they never see themselves' and how it turns people into objects that can be possessed. Looking at images of people, whether they are dead or alive, always installs a sense of nostalgia, a memento mori. As Sontag writes: 'To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability.' In a way it creates a 'pseudo presence and a sign of absence'. I think this describes the way the photography cave looks like, and especially what kind of feelings photographs bring about. 'They are attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality.'

From here is a very thought provoking explanation on how photographs can awaken feelings of conscious and desire and how these feelings are brought about through opposite forces. With raising consciousness, an image should not be to general, but always linked in a given historical situation. If not, the effectiveness in trying to raise a moral conscious or bring about change becomes lower. 'Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one, and can help build a nascent one.' That's why documentary photographers need good captions, or give an explanation about the context in which an image was taken, in order to have effect. Sontag adds to that that there needs to be a certain relevant political consciousness to let viewers be morally effected by photographs. Creating a shock effect by showing suffering is not sufficient. The ethical content of photography is fragile. 'In these last decades "concerned" photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it. 

Personal thoughts after reading:

1. How do I feel when I take images? Am I looking for a moment to disconnect from reality? I guess that's how it started and maybe also what I enjoy very much about photography. My first years in photography were definitely an escape from my busy family life and a way to focus on an other world. 

2. How do I stream the aggressiveness that comes from my images? Am I bold enough to follow my own vision, or am I too apologetic so that I won't take the image that I would?

3. If I want to explore documentary photography in Senegal, how can I be sensitive to the moral response of the viewers?

4. How do I want my photographic cave to look like and be influenced by?