Susan Sontag and the Semantics of Photography Friday January 20, 2006

At university I used to enjoy browsing the library shelves, free from curriculum concerns, finding randomly interesting books. When I graduated with my literature degree I had spare time for a few months and continued visiting the library returning to my former interest before being engrossed in literature: photography.

I found Susan Sontag’s On Photography and was amazed to discover such a critical study, that it was possible to apply a sociological, political and psychological framework to the silver halide art. Decades later Sontag’s book remains an important work, more recently supplemented and supported with Regarding The Pain Of Others which, while a more specific subject, also addresses one of the core features of photography. The voyeuristic gaze is an inherent part of it: not necessarily in a deranged or perverse sense, but in the sense that you view the world both intimately and with detachment. Sontag argued that the camera is inherently aggressive because it always presents an image of a person they themselves cannot see, and is thereby a violation of their identity. I don’t wholly agree with that, and while I rate her first book quite highly I also object to some further ideas she had, and the manner of her writing. Sometimes, the photographic gaze is gentle, poetic, and creates beauty where it doesn’t obviously exist.

There was recently an entire conference revolving around the theme of Regarding The Pain Of Others (Leeds University December 2005), being a pertinent and problematic feature of the world today: war images, Abu Ghraib, 9/11. Sontag is renowned, and highly regarded. In 1975, around the time of On Photography, she delivered a speech to an American college called Photography Within The Humanities. In some respects it sums up her ideas and her position, and it’s both an interesting and admirable premise: photography is an image-making art within a wider framework of meaning, and

If photography has a place in the humanities, it might very well have a kind of central place, because it is not only a form of art under certain restrictions, but it also has a place where all kinds of sociological and moral and historical questions can be raised (Sontag in Wells 2003: 60).

Photography is thus a working tool for conceptual exploration, capable of recording and highlighting almost any aspect of human reality – including suffering. As an art form, she said, photography

Is not so much art as meta-art. It’s an art which devours other art….There is a sense in which photography takes the whole world as its subject, cannibalises all art forms, and converts them into images. And in that sense it seems a peculiarly modern art…it has the capacity to turn every experience, every event, every reality into a commodity or an object or image (ibid).

As an art within the humanities, Sontag compares photography to literature, the primary difference being a writer has to create his work entirely within himself, transforming his thoughts, feeling and impressions of life into a novel or poem “whereas, for the photographer, the world is really there” (ibid: 62). As a praxis, this is both the problem and the fascination with photography: it cannot be conceptualised like film, or literature, because it is inescapably embedded within social reality where its apparent detachment is at best wholly innocuous and aesthetic, and at worst hugely problematic and/or political. Whatever you photograph has real implications for the subject – and images of suffering lie at both the heart of this conundrum, and at the core of the human condition where, according to Buddha, you are born into suffering because your existence is inherently conditioned and transient. There’s a Mayan word, yacunah, which means ‘love, suffering; the inescapable poignancy of existence’ (Arguelles 1987: 198). Photography is simultaneously the permanent record of passing transience, and a tragically sad failure to prevent it. As Barthes notes in his Camera Lucida every photograph is a death, a memorial to what was and will never be again, most painfully understood with images of deceased loved ones.

Photography is semantically or philosophically linked to the powerlessness of the human condition, with its impermanence and unavoidable suffering. Your absence from the photograph both reminds you of this fact, and is part of its fascination: you see it, don’t see it, memorialise it permanently and note that it no longer exists. As Sontag notes:

In a way you are not present, you are passive when you look at the photograph. Perhaps that is the disturbing thing….You are not there in the picture, and that is where the anxiety comes in; there is nothing you can do when you look at a photograph (ibid: 64).

This power to observe into life, with miniaturised paper or pixel images, is an extension of human capacity in the McLuhan sense, technology being an extension of the cerebral or nervous system. Photography is embedded within life, qualitatively different from other arts because you ‘take snapshots’ of it – take parts of it – for an ambiguous subsequent reflection, either in a book or on a VDU.


Sontag, Susan On Photography
Barthes, Roland 1993 Camera Lucida
Wells, Liz, 2003 The Photography Reader
Arguelles, Jose, 1987 The Mayan Factor