Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gesichtspalme Sonntag

I've had Susan Sontag's On Photography sitting in my to-read stack for months now, and the other day I finally started reading it. I'm not sure how much more I can take. I was annoyed when she said, "There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera." I got more annoyed when she sneered, "While real people are out there killing themselves or other real people, the photographer stays behind his or her camera [...]. Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention." She laments at "how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph." Please. If you're so inhumanly callous that you would choose to take a picture rather than help someone in danger, you've got problems to start with, problems you would have even if you'd never used a camera. Did she actually believe that was something professional photojournalists did?

Then I got really, really annoyed when she said that "there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time." I mean, come on. As a photographer, how can I not be insulted by this? Predatory my ass. Why is seeing people as they never see themselves a "violation" anyway? What's wrong with that? As for "turning people into objects"? How 'bout no. The camera doesn't turn anything into anything. The person is still a person, and the picture is a new, separate thing. And that's all it is, a thing, a little piece of paper. It's not stealing anyone's soul, for christ's sake. There's no harm done. (No harm, that is, in merely taking a picture. Using the picture commercially without consent of the person is another matter, but that's beside the point.) And this idea of "sublimated murder"? Speak for yourself, is all I can say. This is the kind of comment that's too ridiculous to know how to refute. I mean, I take pictures of people for reasons that are pretty much the opposite of murder. Jeez louise. "Sad, frightened"? Let me tell you, when I'm taking pictures, it's probably the least sad and frightened I ever feel.

Eight of my Goodreads friends gave this book 5 stars! And most of them are people I like as human beings! What am I to make of this? Are any of them photographers? I doubt it. But, okay, I promise not to judge them until I've finished the book.


  1. One wonders if Susan Sontag ever looked in a mirror.

    I also totally reject the implied distinction between "possessing someone's soul" via photography and the perhaps "gentler" arts of painting, sculpture, etc. The work of great artists like Goya, Velazquez, etc. can reveal as much about the subject's character as any photograph can.

  2. Intellectuals say stupid things all the time. You've noticed that on your blog and in your poetry in a very funny way for years. I like reading her for her purple prose. You focus on some very purple purple here. I even like her essay on "Camp," where she says a brilliant thing about gay culture, then a stupid thing about it, then a brilliant thing, then three stupid things in a row. I was horrified when she organized that production of WAITING FOR GODOT in Sarajevo in the midst of the worst of it a few decades back. I couldn't think of an example of a dumber gesture by an alleged "world class intellectual." "I had always wanted to direct Beckett..." How selfish. How about just bringing food...or blood? I remember Camille Paglia's evil quip, "Little Suzy Sunshine, bringing Beckett to Sarajevo!" A deserved shiv.