Nance on Sontag on photography

I can’t help but relate a recent experience with the power of photography when responding to the Sontag article. My daughter Cait was married earlier this month. It was a much anticipated event, of course, and turned out to be a glorious day for an outdoor wedding, full of many emotions and good times with our close friends and family. I wanted to fully experience the event so I didn’t take many photos, even though I had my camera there. Over the next few days I had this irrational anxiety about not having “captured” visually some of the moments I didn’t want to forget, as if by not recording those moments they will be forgotten and not “exist”.

I thought about this when I read Sontag’s take on photographing an event, that it somehow diminishes the event by focusing more on the photography than on the experience. I think there’s a balance to be struck here and know that photography will help to preserve my impressions of the day. I didn’t want any of the experience of that day to evaporate – better to bottle it up to enjoy again and again. Fortunately, there was a (very good) photographer at the wedding, so I can relax now, having seen a bunch of the photos on Facebook.

Facebook! Sontag couldn’t have anticipated Facebook and the internet when she wrote In Plato’s Cave, or the proliferation of casual biographic images that are now possible with digital cameras and devices. We can now peer into every “friend’s” photo album and become intimately familiar with their lives. It’s probably too early to know how this will play out over time, but there is certainly a capacity for being able to get to know people more quickly.

Sontag’s thoughts are more pessimistic and even cynical about the role of photographs in our lives, portraying tourists as compulsive photographers needing to prove they had “fun”. She wrote about images of war and famine and referred to the photographer as “the person who is recording” and “cannot intervene”, becoming almost a silent partner to the violence. On the other hand, she points out the power of a photograph of a burning child to rally change for an unjust war in Vietnam. In that case, does the camera become more like a weapon for good instead of an excuse to not act?

I agree that the plethora of images we see each day tends to up the ante for our attention, and this seems even more true with unpleasant images of war and suffering. Images in the news of more flood or earthquake victims may not grab our attention but we seem to have an unlimited appetite for Lady Gaga or cute pets. Or our friends’ and loved ones’ life events. But being surrounded by this “grammar” of images has also inspired ever more sophisticated and thoughtful image-making and encouraged a visual literacy that helps us make sense of our experience in the world.


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