Saturday, March 3, 2007

On Susan Sontag, Part 1

Still, 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.
Susan Sontag, On Photography, Picador, pp 14-15
In this paragraph, Sontag outlines her basic position on the exploitive nature of photography by pointing out its ability to reveal, to reflect, to represent that which could not be achieved by the subject in any other way. She focuses primarily on the exploitive application of this function of photographs, and there certainly is good reason to examine this. Photography has a deeply exploitive role in the power exchanges of the past century. But might the operations that make photography so exploitive also be its redemption as well?

To make a picture of someone has the opportunity to transform their image of self. The picture shows the person back in ways that can’t be otherwise achieved. And this is often desired. It is a function that coincides with a deep need that has arisen in western culture from the dawn of modernism; the need to see the previously unseen.

In psychoanalysis, what is created, or at least sought, is a transformative relationship with another person whose job is to reflect, reveal, and illuminate the individual back to him or her self in a way that they could otherwise not see on their own. This is similar to the “soft murder” that Sontag illustrates, for the individual goes through a process or a cycle of small deaths and rebirths that must occur for the self to integrate. The old must be transformed into the new.

While the camera does have these murderous capacities, these may be its greatest gifts as well. Is not a camera also a receptor, a tubular opening that receives light and in its hidden chamber mediates a transformation of it? The camera is as feminine as masculine. Its mechanical shell contains a hidden mystery. It is a vessel. And if it does has the power to objectify, possess, and symbolically murder, might it not also have the power to transform, to liberate and to symbolically conceive?

In Sontag’s writings, the camera is penetrative, and thus infused with an aura of suspicion and danger. While this penetrative quality of the camera is certainly real, it is not only a negative trait. There is a biological truth that in nature without penetration, there is no procreation. A psychic truth corresponds as well. Without penetration, there is no new thought or new modes of being. It is a prerequisite for new ideas, for new perspectives, for new thought that there be a kind of psychic penetration. Without it we are isolated and stagnant. Since the camera can be penetrative, it is how this penetration is handled that determines the net effect of the picture on the viewer. The camera is indeed a thief of sorts. At question is what the image gives back in the world once it has been taken.

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