Critique On “Photography” By Susan Sontag

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The essay, “On Photography”, by Susan Sontag seeks to address and reaffirm that the humankind, in the modern days, is confined and does not bother to break the shell, get out of it, and discover the endless possibilities and the realities. The essay takes a closer look at the use and the practice of photography in present times. Sontag, in her essay, argues that photography has  enslaved  and  suffocated the  minds  of humans  despite its  benefits and advantages. Through Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave”, photography can be thought of as the cave in which men are limited to their shells and chained within them. Photographs serve to represent snapshots of events and justify the happening of those events. These photographs limit the understanding of humankind, imprison their minds and consequently, their minds continue to survive in suffocation. These photographs represent only one aspect of an event and do not act to explain the context of such events. Sontag mentions that humans consider such aspects to be realities which, in some way or another, are biased somewhat without considering what their context is and other interpretations. The humankind, however, is content and satisfied to survive in this way. One, enslaved by one’s suffocated mind, does not muster up courage and question these photographs which, mere, can be taken as the images of truth.

Photography these days is used to teach us by specifying phenomenon and narrowing down our sight to important matters which require our attention as Sontag states “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge … right to observe.” (1). Although, photographs  also  act  to  enhance  our  state  of  mind  by  bringing  to  us  different  events, phenomenon and places which are unapproachable to human beings who were not present at the moment, however, it also poses a limitation to their minds which does not let them grow out, question related matters and discover the reality. Humankind considers the notions which are brought to them by photographs as the only aspect which deserve attention. According to the allegory, these photographs can be thought of as chains which do not let its prisoners move their heads and legs which may help them in striving for the realities. Humankind, although confined in a dungeon from their birth by the limitations of their fears, is enslaved also by the chains of society and the outside world which consequently act as a double layer of enslavement to the will and the desire of discovering. They do not inquire about the related phenomenon and other interpretations which may possibly suggest other ways. People become accustomed to the realities shown in the pictures that are actually the images of truth. When human beings get introduced to these photographs, they think themselves educated, however, according to Plato’s allegory, they are not educated because they cannot move their heads, see the related phenomenon and discover the truths of reality as he puts it in his precise words “… and have their necks and legs chained … being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads” (867). Plato describes them as “unenlightened”. He considers them “unenlightened” because if they were enlightened somehow, they would not have been living in ignorance and would not have been misinformed. If the human beings were enlightened, they would have been able to fully comprehend everything without the slightest of any flaw. Hence, the knowledge, obtained by human beings, is dis-satisfactory, obsolete and malignant and the seeing eye cannot witness realities.

As an audience to the photographs, the belief which people have in the truthfulness of those images will be shattered if they get to know those realities. They will get “perplexed” when they get to know that the images, they had a belief on, were incomplete and that they were not fully informed. Sontag, in her essay, mentions that photographs are biased because these are “… haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience” (2). They do not fully explain the context and the experience of the subject matter. She further states that these photographs only represent those ideas which photographers are content with. Her precise words are “… that supported their own notions …” (2) and “… photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects” (2). Although, photographs do show reality to an extent, however, it cannot be compared to that of a real experience. People will get disturbed when they get to know that they believed in an incomplete or flawed event or phenomenon.

Photographers, in some way, are aggressive. They are stubborn. They are self-assertive. When they get to know the reality of a phenomena or an event, they will not be ready to accept it and think that only the “reality”, which they believed on, was true which, in fact, was only an image of the truth. They only get rid of the suffering, which they encounter by facing the reality, by making photographs of events or phenomenon which are biased in some manner. According to the allegory, photographers show escapism by turning their heads and avoiding the reality and as a result, they will seek refuge in their enslavement by making their beliefs strong in pseudo-realities which are only the images and not the realities as a whole. Plato states “… turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see …” (869). This self-assertiveness becomes a huge obstacle in their accepting of the realities which may prove harmful sometimes. Such people are content with the chains and live happily. They do not have any desire of growing out of the shell, break the dungeon and prosper. People like to prefer photographs over experience. However, photographs cut out a large portion of the reality.

Photographs introduce humankind to events from far off places showing only one aspect. People are not much stimulated when they are shown the miseries of people who live at distant places and hence, they do not take any step for them or raise any voice. Photographs have made people passive. Although, photographs may be thought of as a medium of invitation to it audience to step up for the troubled people, however, they do not change their state of their own minds regarding passivity. Photographs only introduces to its audience that the people, who live far away from them, face sufferings but the photographs do not describe the ache. People cannot feel the real pain. Photography does not intervene in the event and hence, allows it to continue occurring as “Like sexual voyeurism, … on happening” (Sontag 5). Most of the people will not wish to go there and help them out. They will keep a safe distance from such places of suffering and will act as if they are really helping out the people in the troubled areas. They will consider that by mere watching those photographs, that portray a small boy suffering from malnutrition, a woman picking up food from trash, a man mourning over his daughter’s dead body, are just enough for them to feel their tinge. These photographs may possibly, for the time being, make them feel it but people do not bother to care in aggregate.

Although, photographs provide evidence of an event, however, it also does something to   people’s   minds   which   is   inappropriate   and   unethical.   People,  as  audience  to  such photographs, are not to be blamed for it because they do not intentionally change their minds and such change is gradual and cannot be detected within small time frames. The minds of people who live in constraints and chains become insusceptible to the sufferings of the people in two ways. One manner being their ignorance of knowledge along with their approachability to  such  places  and  circumstances,  while the  other  being  the constant exposure of a human mind to repeated suffering consequently, making them immune to the troubles and pains. Photography can be thought of the latter cause of immunity of people’s minds as Plato mentions “… dazzled by excess of light” (872). Sontag relates this phenomenon by mentioning two wars i.e. Vietnam war and Gulag Archipelago. The only comparison was that the former war had pictures and people in this case had become immune to these troubles and later on, did not have any immense effect on its audience. She further states that, if any of the individual living in peace and harmony gets disturbed by watching these photographs, the immense brutality depicted in them was appeased by saying “it`s only a photograph” (9) as if the pains endured by people in the photographs were fake. Such an individual, if keeps on watching such photographs, will be no more tensed and grieved later on. They do not feel the pain anymore. They become spiritually dead. Plato states in his allegory the condition of such people as “… unable to see because accustomed to the dark” (871). The condition of such people, who bear to watch such photographs and have become invulnerable to such pains and troubles, is pitiful. Such photographs took away their innocence which is the raw characteristic of humankind and which should not be lost or shattered at any cost.

People, so far, have become indulged in the use of photography too much that the boundaries,  that  defined  and  limited  the  use  of  a  camera,  have  tarnished.  The  use  of photography is mostly aimless nowadays. Although, camera is a useful and helpful tool in many of the cases, yet, people have started prioritizing it to an extent beyond that it deserves from humankind. People have become “image-junkies” which according to Plato only serves as chains and constraints as people, in present times, cannot look beyond the scope of a photograph, inquire about the authenticity of such photograph. The minds of human beings tend to break these chains and struggle for the realities. However, photographs serve as a cage in which the minds of human beings get entrapped. Their minds get abducted. When the human beings, that are already suppressed and oppressed by the boundaries of the scopes of photographs, are informed or told about the realities of the world and that, when their perceived notions of pseudo-realities which they considered to be realities get annihilated, they get perturbed. This perturbation makes them stubborn and they revert back to believing in their own pseudo-realities. Their tendencies of discovery get suppressed when they get introduced to the realities of the outside world. Photographers consider their own notions to be the only aspects of what they are photographing. They develop some sorts of standards upon which they evaluate their captured photographs and present to the world which they consider to be in accordance with their own notions. In such manner, other related material gets cut off which may possibly be of great importance. Photographers present incomplete information in their photographs. Photographs that depict misery may possibly be a call for action, however, it does not make people feel the pain and people consequently are not stimulated much to support people and stand against miseries. The disadvantage of photography is that the individual who gets a constant show of misery through photographs becomes immune and such sufferings become normal. They do not get affected by such photographs. The overall state of humankind is pitiful as it resides in a dungeon and is content with its own situation.


Feature Image Credits: Chicken Egg Pics

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