Impressions./ “On Photography” by Susan Sontag

To cut straight to the point, I love Susan’s work. With each of her pieces, I’ve found myself reevaluating how I look at the world. It’s cliché to say that a books give new perspectives but with Susan’s, I really feel it.

As with the other impressions, this is not a review.

“On Photography” is split into separate six sections (excluding the 25 pages of quotes at the end). The best essays were “In Plato’s Cave” and “The Image-World”. I won’t pretend to fully comprehend Susan – she writes extensively about photography in the 19th century. Before reading this book, I honestly was unfamiliar that photography existed in the 19th century.

A couple parts that I enjoyed were explanations about the nature of photography. Is it an art or a document of reality? It seems that we have a strange relationship with photography because our base assumptions regard photography as being part of reality. Whereas a painting is entirely created from nothingness, photography is a record of something that once existed. Although we know that pictures can be fictitious, our automatic assumption is often that there’s some truth buried in them (where in other arts, we recognize them immediately as imaginative).

Another area I enjoyed was an analysis of our relationship to images. Pictures offer us a separate reality because they document something not immediately in our presence. Even pictures of the recent past represent something that no longer exists. It seems like a strange thought. We use imagery to connect with realities other than the one that we reside in. We look at family photos to connect with family not immediately present; we look at photos of faraway mountains because we long for another reality; we look at photos of celebrities because we long to be part of that reality.

In the final essay, Susan discusses society’s relationship to images. I want to include a brief passage from the book:

“A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increate productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats… The freedom to consume a plurality of images and good is equated with freedom itself. The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumption requires the unlimited production and consumption of images.”

It’s funny that she wrote this in 1973; before digital photography or the invention of websites like Instagram. I would love to read her thoughts on modern day consumption of images. Which brings me to the final topic I want to write about: how this has impacted my relationship to photography and media.

Ten years ago, I was in love with Flickr (an image sharing website used by photographers). Every day, I would login and click through two or three pages of pictures taken by photographers I admired. Most of them were high school aged (like me) and I connected with the work they were creating. At most, I would see a couple dozen images per day.

Fast forward ten years, I feel like I’m awash in an endless stream of images. On Instagram, the infinite scroll consumed large parts of my day. Instead of seeing less than 50 images a day, now I’ll see hundreds.

Susan’s writings about using photography as a method to escape one’s reality, or peering into another’s, really sank in. I feel like I used to view a few images throughout the day and it was easy to make distinctions between my life and my photography. As time has gone on, I feel like I’ve dwelled too long in other realities. Ones that don’t exist.

I’m still reevaluating my relationship to social media. Currently, my Facebook, Instagram, and SnapChat are deactivated. Each time I try to go back and limit my consumption, I feel a weird nausea. I wouldn’t describe myself as a social media addict – but even in small doses it makes me feel uncomfortable. Like I’m dwelling in too many places – or desiring too many places. Old friends, lost lovers, places I used to live, other lives I used to have. The multiplicity of realities just feels… awful?

I’m always free to consume as much media as I want, and our society almost demands it of us. We value knowledge and experience, both are everlasting online. Yet, when I consume too much of it, binge through a few hours of Instagram, I feel unhappy at the end. I feel like I was suckered into eating a gallon of ice cream and I’m left feeling like a glutton afterwards. Ashamed both that I compulsively consumed and ashamed that I have difficulty moderating the right amount of media for me.

Anyways, I definitely suggest reading “On Photography” if you like moderately complex writing. I’ll admit, I feel like I comprehended 1/3 of the book and will have to reread to better understand it. Susan’s work is a difficult read for me but it’s always worth it!

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