Photography as a Way to Capture a Glimpse of Time: Based on the 'On Photography' Book Review by Susan Sontag
If I took a photo of you at this exact instant, what would I be photographing? Am I capturing a glimpse of time? A mirrored image of reality? Or is the hi-definition lens slowly depicting a moment of the past, for at the second I take the picture, is that a moment that has disappeared? And if I were to print that picture, what would I be printing? Ultimately, were you worth capturing? Is it a memory that I am going to cherish? And what does the act of taking a picture provide me with? These are questions instantaneously sprung to mind whilst reading the passage from, “On Photography”, by Susan Sontag. It is questions such as these that are intertwined within Sontag’s interesting observations on what photography is, and what role it embraces.
Sontag is immovably set on her belief that photography limits our understanding of the world, but her reasons are completely feebleminded. Photography, in no way, limits our understanding of the world, rather it broadens and enhances our understanding. It increases awareness and provokes thought, it allows for the appreciation of things we hold dear and it is a part of who we are. Products of photography are not mental pollutants, but rather breaths of fresh air. Photography is a subject in which I have devoted an abundance of time and energy to, and one thing that I am certain of is that photography is a right of passage.
The entire idea of photography was established in order to allow individuals to express themselves and their ideas. I can distinctly picture my first day of photography school.
I walked into the classroom and the initial conversation began with a discussion of Edward Steichen and his remarkable photos. Although Steichen is a name that is only known to few, his photos are known to all. He was one of the most phenomenal photographers throughout the duration of World War ll. His most momentous photo is also the most indelible. He photographed a frail-looking man with bones protruding out of his skin, the starvation clearly prominent upon his feeble body. The wrinkles of stress and fatigue upon his adolescent face, making him appear decrepit. And within the background of this photo were shelves. But these shelves were not used for their intended purpose, instead, each meager shelf contained three men each. No mattress, no pillow, no blanket, only a confined cramped place which each man would now consider home. This precise photo impassioned me to become involved with photography. The way that Steichen was able to capture the emotions of the war is utterly remarkable. Sontag directly states that “One never understands anything from a photograph,” but that is an entirely dishonest assertion. The understanding of a photograph comes through the viewer’s interpretation of what is presented, the same way in which understanding writing comes through the comprehension of reading.
Sontag decides to conclude her beginning paragraph with, “only that which narrates can make us understand.”, thus further proving her fatuousness. All art speaks, but it is up to you to listen. A woman holding her child. The initial impression of this picture may not seem exceptional, and it is not until you decide to become immersed within the photo that you will realize its true meaning. The child covered in smoke, coughing out particles trapped in his lungs. His nose bleeding due to the exposure to dust and pollution. His body curled tightly into the mother’s, feeling a sense of comfort and safety. The mother’s face overflowing with alleviation. She is embracing her child as if it’s the last chance she will ever receive. The trick to understanding photographs is to look, listen, and let the art communicate. The art will speak to those willing to understanding. For many, photography allows for the appreciation of past memories. Continuing on her critique of photography, Sontag argues that, “photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is.” But, how is this negative? Photography allows us to look back and remember a certain memoir, a nostalgic moment. It ultimately assures you that you have lived a specific moment – whether it be great or terrible – it was a moment that was real to you.
When you ask people what possessions they would rescue from their burning house, the most prominent answer is usually their photos. When in panic mode it’s interesting to find that we would grab photos rather than valuable jewelry. This impulse to save our recorded memories is a powerful force that tells us much about the role of photography in our lives and our constant desire to convert our most precious moments into images. We preserve the important events and people in our lives. The ceremonies of birthdays, marriages and anniversaries, holidays, and new houses are all recorded because they matter and hold meaning in our lives. Photographs are our personal story, a timeline of our lives filled with faces and places that we love. They are our story, which we can share with others. The hundreds of images come together to form a narrative of our lives. Who needs words when you have photos? The lights dim low, the crowd goes wild, and your favorite artist emerges upon the stage. If you decide to take a glimpse around at this exact moment, I can guarantee that your vision will be intruded on by phones and cameras. In today’s world, this is what we do in most situations. As Sontag concludes, “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.”, and she is not wrong by stating this. Yes, as a society we have become addicted to the act of taking photos, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Photography is part of who we are. No matter what we think or say, photography will always be a way of displaying who we are to the world. Having the ability to photograph, to become the artist, and to snap away at whatever we think is important makes us feel like we are in control like we have the power. It is truly remarkable that we have the ability to say, “Here, this is from me to you. This is everything that I value, and everything that I cherish, and I am willing to share it with you so that maybe you will better understand me and how I view the world.”
Not only does photography enable us to share who we are, but it also allows us to share what is going on in the world. It is imperative to have knowledge of what is occurring in the world around you, and photos open new doors to communication. The photograph of the drowned Syrian boy is just as harrowing as the image of the Vietnamese girl running for her life. It is when images like these are spread around the world that create a reaction. Viewing these devastating photos convince people to want to make a difference. These photos show us the realities of the events taking place in a county not too far from us. The drowned Syrian boy photo made a difference. We saw the human cost of the refugee crisis. We demanded our governments allow in more refugees and to save them from their hapless fates. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom heard those cries, and he agreed to allow in even more refugees. Thousands of lives may have been spared because of one image. An image proved that we could do more, that we should do more to help these people. Their survival depended on our sympathy and that photograph helped us all to have some.
So, what if I decided to take a photo of you now? Would I still be photographing the exact same person as before? Or would I be photographing someone with a newfound appreciation and understanding of photography? Ultimately, are you worth capturing now? The answer is yes. Photography school has aided me to come to the conclusion that every photo is unique and every photo contributes to who we are. Susan Sontag needs to come to the realization that her passage from, “On Photography”, is a tangled web of lies. Photography is not a limiting factor in our understanding of the world, it is a broadening and enhancing of it. It increases awareness and generates thought, it allows for the appreciation of things we hold dear, and it a part of who we are.
Cite this Essay
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below