In Plato’s Cave – The Efficacy of Still Photography in Understanding the Streams of Reality
March 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
In 1973, before the internet and digital cameras, Susan Sontag wrote “On Photography.” In the opening chapter of this book (titled In Plato’s Cave), Sontag investigates the productivity of photography–particularly in relation to “concerned” photography, such as that which we see in humanitarian work quite profligately today. Sontag discusses the ethics of our modern hunting (i.e. “load” “aim” “shoot” and “capture” are all words used in both hunting and photography) and puts into context what she believes are the weaknesses of photography in the effort to help us understand reality.
Here is an excerpt.
“Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised–partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror. One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany. For me, it was photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa MOnica in July 1945. Nothing I have seen–in photographs or in real life–ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after, though it was several years before I understood fully what they were about. What good was served by seeing them? They were only photographs–of an event I had scarcely heard of an could do nothing to affect, of suffering I could hardly imagine and could do nothing to relieve. When I looked at those photographs, something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feeling started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.
To suffer is one thing; another thing 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 started down the road of seeing more–and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize. An event known through photographs certainly becomes more real that it would have been if one had never seen the photographs–think of the Vietnam War. (For a counter-example, think of the Gulag Archipelago, of which we have no photographs). But after repeated exposure to images it also becomes less real….The vast photographic catalogue of misery and injustice throughout the world has given everyone a certain familiarity with atrocity, making the horrible seem more ordinary–making it appear familiar, remote…inevitable. At the time of the first photographs of the Nazi camps, there was nothing banal about these images. After thirty years, a saturation point may have been reached. In these last decades, “concerned” photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it. …
Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no. Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph. Of course, photographs fill in blanks in our mental pictures of the present and the past: for example, Jacob Rii’s images of New York squalor in the 1880s are sharply instructive of those unaware that urban poverty in late-nineteenth-century America was really that Dickensian. Nevertheless, the camera’s rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses….In contrast to the amorous relation, which is based on how something looks, understanding is based on how it functions. And functioning takes place in time and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand.
The limit of photographic knowledge of the world is that while it can goad conscience, it can, finally, never be ethical or political knowledge. The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will be a knowledge at bargain prices–a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom….The very muteness of what is, hypothetically, comprehensible in photographs is what constitutes their attrition and provocativeness. The omnipresence of the photographs has an incalculable effect on our ethical sensibility. By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is.”