If I took a photo of you at 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. It a part of who we are. Indeed, products of photography are not mental pollutants, but 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 cleary 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 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. According to Sontag, photographs give a superficial sense of belonging, for the picture you are looking at is an event or person that is no longer before you.
But, how is this negative? Photography allows us to look back and recollect a certain memoir, a nostalgic moment. It ultimately assures you that you have lived a certain moment – whether it was happy or sad – it was a moment that was real to you. Continuing on her critique of photography, Sontag argues that, “photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is.” Other times, it is a way to keep a memory, or create one. Sometimes, people use photography in ways that some of us just wouldn’t really think about. Photography for her can bring about different experiences in different people. I completely agree.
It is in this sense that it is adding something to our society, because photography is becoming an alternate way of communication. It is a way in which we can transport ourselves into another place, and into the photographer’s mind and say “what was he/she thinking when this was taken?” But at the same time she saw it, and after her argument so did I, as a way in which our society is going backwards and taking away from the cultural aspect. It is diminishing our own experiences. It happens to me all the time. When I am visiting a family’s friend house and their two year old is doing something cute, or being as random as she is, I immediately take out my camera and record what she is doing, or take a picture of her.
This is what we do in most situations. Instead of actually experience something, and have a memory that we can replay over and over in our heads, we just take a picture and that is sufficient for us. I think that overall, she has made me realize that photography is part of who we are. No matter what we think or say, photography will always be a way of showing the world who we are.
Us having the ability to photograph, to be the artist, and snap away at whatever we think is important makes us feel like we are in control; we have the power. Photography is a way in which we can transport ourselves. It is a way in which our beings can transcend beyond who we are and what we are doing, and show others what it was that we were experiencing. We are able to show the world what we have learned and what we know. We are able to say “Here, this is from me to you. It is everything that I value, and everything that I think is important, and I am willing to share it with you, so that maybe you will better understand me, and how I see the world at this very moment.”