Susan Sontag’s seminal book Photography (1977) speaks prophetically about many of the issues social media is now forcing us to consider. Who owns images, what is intrusive, historical, artistic, useful in a photograph? What is narcissistic, who shoots, who poses, who directs, what or when is a photograph an artefact? What do photographs recall about society, intimacy, mortality? Is, as Sontag says, photography ‘the inventory of mortality’?
Written before the rise of the mobile phone and Snapchat etc., it is uncanny how some of Sontag’s questions are still relevant today. It is worrying though that rather than having been resolved, they are ever pressing, more urgent, more threatening. ‘To photograph is to confer importance’ she says. ‘The photograph tends to turn the past instantaneously into an object of tender regard’: because ‘When we are afraid, we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures’.
But there is an issue with this nostalgia, because it creates distance and the image, the thingh we are conferring importance upon becomes removed, aloof. It, and us, become consumable and therefore disposable. ‘Photography…is mainly a social rite, a defence against anxiety, and a tool of power’: a flawed tool though.
‘Photography [and now social media] has become one of the principal devices for…giving an appearance of participation’ she writes. But the distance Sontag describes is one of lost participation. ‘Today everything exists to end in a photograph’ as a faux sense of our desired participation. We hold the camera between us and our experiences. Between us and the concert we attend, the paintings we see, the landscapes we look at, even between us and our children, even between us and the experience of giving or witnessing birth. Sontag writes ‘…where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph. The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene’. We are making ourselves numb.
‘Having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross’, writes Sontag. We couldn’t maintain the aura of greatness around Shakespeare if we had a photo of that most famous of English playwrights at home in his pyjamas. Nor could we maintain the mystique, the majesty, the sacrality of Christ, if somehow the story were to become tangible, human, reachable by our holding a simple nail in our hands.
‘Photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at’ and they force us to see the unseen, but my sense is that Sontag understood the damage of capturing our every mood and meal would unravel something important within us. And I think, if I understand her properly, that it is to do with our sense of mortality and our desire to believe in immortality. There is something inherently anxious about photography and our desire to photograph.
‘All photographs are memento mori…all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’.
You can read her book here.