261mc: On Photography by Susan Sontang


When I first picked up this book, and looked at it’s rather sombre cover, I wondered how relevant any of Susan’s thoughts on photography could be nearly 40 years on from when it was first published. A lot has changed in the world of photography since then. In 1977 compact cameras were relatively new and photographs still needed chemical processing. In 2016, the age of digital media, it seems that everyone is a photographer. Few phones are now without a built in camera and no sooner has an image been captured than it can be instantly posted out all over the world via the internet and a choice of social networking sites.

Yet Susan’s observations seem somehow more relevant today, with the popularity of Facebook and Instagram, than ever before!

In the very first chapter Susan refers to photographs as ‘souvenirs of daily life‘ and I’m not sure I could think of a better description of our generations use of photography on Facebook. We are all creating our own family albums, but storing them online for all to see, no longer in a drawer brought out to embarrass the eldest child on their first date. She tells us of the importance of a ‘portrait chronicle‘ of family life and how it was subtly implied by society at that time that parents who didn’t photograph their children maybe didn’t care as much as those who did. We see this all over social media. In some cases it seems the more a parent shares photos of their child with us then the more they must adore them and be the best possible parent, and certainly far more capable than ourselves.

Susan also talks about travel and photography;

It seems positively unnatural to travel without taking a camera along

Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had

Again this is so relevant with today’s social media obsessed world. We’ve all been on days out to places and had the worst possible time only to return home and see photos all over Facebook that depict a very different excursion. Posed smiling selfies of you and your friends in front of landmarks hash tagged with #bestdayout  #tourists etc. The point being ‘that fun was had‘. Which leads me to wonder if the philosophical puzzle of “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” should maybe be changed to “If someone has a holiday and doesn’t post about how great it was on Facebook, did it ever really happen?”

Susan talks about the sense of detachment the camera can create and that photography is only ‘giving an appearance of participation‘. She goes on to describe an advert to us that conveys a large group of people standing together looking ‘stunned, excited, upset‘ all except for one individual who is looking out through the eye of his camera. Everyone is viewing the same event and seems moved by it, but not the photographer. The camera detaches him. Puts up an invisible barrier between the photographer and the events unfolding in front of the lens. I have noticed this often happens to me when I am photographing at large events. Capturing the perfect image, the image that tells that event’s story, becomes of upmost importance and my eyes rarely move from the scene. This has led to my own safety being compromised, by not being aware of my surroundings, and not sensing how volatile a situation I may have been in.

The idea of a photographer’s participation leads Susan to question if ‘Photography is essentially an act of non-intervention‘?

Many photographers have had their morals questioned when photographing situations they may have been able to assist in. The photo below, taken by Kevin Carter in 1993, led to a lot of criticism over his decision to photograph a vulture stalked child rather than help her.


Yet the photograph is not quite what it seems. The picture was taken at a regular food drop off point. The child had only been left for a few moments by her mother while she collected food and the vulture is merely looking for any scraps it may find dropped nearby. As soon as the photograph was taken Kevin did indeed chase the bird away rather than leave her at any risk. As Susan reminds us, ‘Any photograph has multiple meanings.’

Kevin was tormented by the images he saw and photographed during his time in Sudan and South Africa and three months after this picture was released Kevin took his own life. Leaving a note explaining that “…. I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain… of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executions….” So it seems, for Kevin at least, the camera lens and it’s sense of detachment, eventually, was not barrier enough.

Are we forever the documenter, the ‘ voyeur‘ as Susan describes us, or should we become involved with our subjects? Or would this ‘taint’ the final image?

Susan explains it quite simply, ‘The person who intervenes cannot record, the person who is recording cannot intervene.’


One thought on “261mc: On Photography by Susan Sontang

  1. Very good to see this and you make some interesting analysis and correct to include the Carter story. A small point but convention necessities that authors are referred to by surname so Sontag and not Susan.

    As we progress as well as the assignments set you could post some notes and reflections on the lectures, seminars and any thoughts you have about what we are dealing with. That will make the blog stand out.

    Please set up a blog category for 261 for the module.


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